What Conan Doyle rightly described as "The great Boer War" came eventually to be called yet more correctly "The great Bore War." It grew into a weariness that might well have worn out the patience and exhausted the resources of almost any nation. No one for a moment imagined when we reached Koomati Poort that we had come only to the half-way house of our toils and travels, and that there still lay ahead of us another twelve months' cruel task. From the very first to the very finish it has been a war of sharp surprises, and to most the sharpest surprise of all has been this its wasteful and wanton prolonging.
[Sidenote: Exhaustlessness of Boer resources.]
We wondered early, and we wondered late, at the seeming exhaustlessness of the Boer resources. In their frequent flights they destroyed, or left for us to capture, almost fabulously large supplies of food and ammunition; yet at the end of two years of such incessant waste Kaffirs were still busy pointing out to us remote caves filled with food stuffs, as in Seccicuni's country, or large pits loaded to the brim with cases of cartridges. A specially influential Boer prisoner told me he himself had been present at many such burials, when 250 cases of mauser ammunition were thus secreted in one place, and then a similar quantity in another, and I have it on the most absolute authority possible that when the war began the Boers possessed not less than 70,000,000 rounds of ball cartridge, and 200,000 rifles of various patterns, which would be tantamount to two for every adult Dutchman in all South Africa. Kruger, in declaring war, did not leap before he looked, or put the kettle on the fire without first procuring an ample supply of coal to keep it boiling. For many a month before hostilities commenced, if not for years, all South Africa lay in the hollow of Kruger's hand, excepting only the seaport towns commanded by our naval guns. At any moment he could have overrun our South African colonies and none could have said him nay. These colonies we held, though we knew it not, on Boer sufferance. At the end of two years of incessant fighting we barely made an end of the invasion of Cape Colony and Natal, and the altogether unsuspected difficulty of the task is the true index of the deadliness of the peril from which this dreadful war has delivered the whole empire.
[Sidenote: The peculiarity of the Boer tactics.]
How it was the Boers did not succeed at the very outset in driving the British into the sea, when we had only skeleton forces to oppose them, was best explained to me by a son of the late State Secretary, who penned the ultimatum, and whom I found among our prisoners in Pretoria. The Boers are not farmers. Speaking broadly there is scarcely an acre of ploughed land in all the Transvaal. "The men are shepherds, their trade hath been to feed cattle." But before they could thus, like the Patriarchs, become herdsmen, they perforce still, like their much loved Hebrew prototypes, had to become hunters, and clear the land of savage beasts and savage men. The hunter's instincts, the hunter's tactics were theirs, and no hunter comes out into the open if he can help it. It is no branch of his business to make a display of his courage and to court death. His part is to kill, so silently, so secretly, as to avoid being killed. Traps and tricking, not to say treachery, and shooting from behind absolutely safe cover, are the essential points in a hunter's tactics. Caution to him is more than courage, and it is precisely along those lines the Boers make war. In almost every case when they ventured into the open it was the doing of their despised foreign auxiliaries. The kind of courage required for the actual conquest of the colonies the Boers had never cultivated or acquired. The men who in six months and six days could not rush little Mafeking hoped in vain to capture Cape Town, unless they caught it napping. But in defensive warfare, in cunningly setting snares like that at Sanna's Post, in skilful concealment as at Modder River, when all day long most of our men were quite unable to discover on which side of the stream the Boer entrenchments were, and in what they called clever trickery, but we called treachery, they are absolutely unsurpassable. So was it through the earlier stages of the campaign. So was it through the later stages.
Another cause of Boer failure as explained to me by the State Secretary's son was the inexperience and incompetency of their generals, who had won what little renown was theirs in Zulu or Kaffir wars. Amajuba, at which only about half a battalion of our troops took part, was the biggest battle they had ever fought against the British, and it led the more illiterate among them to believe they could whip all England's armies as easily as they could sjambok a Kaffir. Their leaders of course knew better, but even they believed there was being played a game of bluff on both sides, with this vital difference, however--we bluffed, and, as they full well knew, did not prepare; they bluffed, and, to an extent we never knew, did prepare. Though therefore their generals were amateurs in the arts of modern warfare as so many of our own proved to be, they confidently reckoned that, if they could strike a staggering blow whilst we were as yet unready, they would inevitably win a second Amajuba. Magnanimity would again leave them masters of the situation, and if not, European intervention would presently compel us to arbitrate away our claims. But Joubert's softness, Schoeman's incompetency and Cronje's surrender spoiled the project just when success seemed in sight. One other cause of Boer failure which remained in force to the very last was their utter lack of discipline. My specially frank and intelligent informant said no Boer ever took part in a fight unless he felt so inclined. He claimed liberty to ignore the most urgent commands of his field cornet, and might even unreproved slap him in the face. Such decidedly independent fighting may serve for the defence of an almost inaccessible kopje, but an attack conducted on such lines is almost sure to fall to pieces. It was therefore seldom attempted, but many a lawless deed was done, like firing on ambulances and funeral parties, for which no leader can well be held responsible.
[Sidenote: The Surprisers Surprised.]
This light formation lent itself, however, excellently well to the success of the guerilla type of warfare, which the Boers maintained for more than twelve months after all their principal towns were taken. Solitary snipers were thus able from safe distances to pick off unsuspecting man, or horse, or ox, and, if in danger of being traced, could hide the bandolier and pose as a peace-loving citizen seeking his own lost ox.
In some cases small detachments of our men on convoy or outpost duty were cut off by these ever-watchful, ever-wandering bands of Boers, and an occasional gun or pom-pom was temporarily captured, a result for which in one case at least extra rum rations were reputed to be responsible. But it must be remembered that our men and officers, regular and irregular alike, were as inexperienced as the Boers in many of the novel duties this war devolved upon them; that the Transvaal lends itself as scarcely any other country under the sun could do to just such surprises, and that the ablest generals served by the trustiest scouts have in the most heroic periods of our history sometimes found themselves face to face with the unforeseen. We are assured, for instance, that even on the eve of Waterloo both Blucher and Wellington were caught off their guard by their great antagonist. On June 15th, at the very moment when the French columns were actually crossing the Belgian frontier, Wellington wrote to the Czar explaining his intention to take the offensive about a fortnight hence; and Blucher only a few days before had sent word to his wife that the Allies would soon enter France, for if they waited where they were for another year, Bonaparte would never attack them. Yet the very next day, June 16th, at Ligny, Bonaparte hurled himself like a thunderbolt on Blucher, and three days after, Wellington, having rushed from the Brussels ballroom to the battlefield at Waterloo, there saved himself and Europe, "so as by fire."
The occasional surprises our troops have sustained in the Transvaal need not stagger us, however much they ruffle our national complacency. They are not the first we have had to face, and may possibly prove by no means the last; but it is at least some sort of solace to know that however often we were surprised during the last long lingering stages of the war, our men yet more frequently surprised their surprisers. Whilst I was still there in July 1901, there were brought into Pretoria the surviving members of the Executive of the late Orange Free State, all notable men, all caught in their night-dresses--President Steyn alone escaping in shirt and pants; whilst his entire bodyguard, consisting of sixty burghers, were at the same time sent as prisoners to Bloemfontein. Laager after laager during those weary months was similarly surprised, and waggons and oxen and horses beyond all counting were captured, till apparently scarcely a horse or hoof or pair of heels was left on all the far-reaching veldt. The Boers resolutely chose ruin rather than surrender, and so, alas, the ruin came; for many, ruin beyond all remedy!
[Sidenote: Train Wrecking.]
During this same period of despairing resistance the Boers imparted to the practice of train wrecking the finish of a fine art. At first they confined their attentions to troop trains, which are presumably lawful game; and as I was returning from Koomati Poort the troop train that immediately followed that on which I travelled was thus thrown off the rails near Pan, and about twenty of the Coldstream Guards, by whose side I had tramped for so many months, were killed or severely injured. The provision trains on which not the soldiers only, but the Boers' own wives and children, depended for daily food, were wrecked, looted or set on fire. Finally, they took to dynamiting ordinary passenger trains, and robbed of their personal belongings helpless women, including nursing sisters.
In Pretoria, I had the privilege of conversing with a cultured and godly lady who told me that she had been twice wrecked on her one journey up from the coast, and that the wrecking was as usual of a fatal type though fortunately not for her. Like one of the ironies of fate seemed the fact, of which she further informed me, that she had brought with her from England some hundreds of pounds' worth of bodily comforts, and yet more abounding spiritual consolations for free distribution among the wives and children of the very men who thus in one single journey had twice placed her life in deadly peril.
Among the Bush Veldt Carabineers at Pietersburg I found an engine-driver who in the course of a few months had thus been shot at and shattered by Boer drivers till he grew so sick of it that he threw up a situation worth £30 a month and joined the Fighting Scouts by way of finding some less perilous vocation. On the Sunday I spent there I worshipped with the Gordons who had survived the siege of Ladysmith; the day following as I returned to Pretoria, the train I travelled by was thrice ineffectually sniped; but soon after the turn of these same Gordons came to escort a train on that same line when nearly every man among them was killed or wounded, including their officer, and a sergeant with whom during that visit I had bowed in private prayer; but the driver, stoker and guard were deliberately led aside and shot after capture in cold blood. So my friend in the Carabineers had not long to wait for the justifying of his strange choice. Not until Norman William had planted stout Norman castles at every commanding point could he complete the conquest of our Motherland; and not until sturdy little block-houses sprang up thick and fast beside 5000 miles of rail and road was travelling in the Transvaal robbed of its worst peril, and the subjugation of the country made complete.
The worst of all our railway smashes, however, occurred close to Pretoria, and was caused by what seemed a bit of criminal carelessness, which resulted in a terrific collision. A Presbyterian chaplain who was in the damaged train showed me his battered and broken travelling trunk; but close beside the wreckage I saw the more terribly broken bodies of nine brave men awaiting burial. It was a tragedy too exquisitely distressing to be here described.
[Sidenote: The Refugee Camps.]
When the two Republics were formally annexed to the British Crown all the women and children scattered far and wide over the interminable veldt, were made British subjects by the very act; and from that hour for their support and safety the British Government became responsible. Yet all ordinary traffic by road or rail had long been stopped. All country stores were speedily cleared and closed. All farm stock or produce was gathered up and carried off, first by one set of hungry belligerents, then by the others; physic was still more scarce than food, and prowling bands of blacks or whites intensified the peril. The creation of huge concentration camps, all within easy reach of some railway, thus became an urgent necessity. No such prodigious enterprise could be carried through its initial stages without hardships having to be endured by such vast hosts of refugees, hardships only less severe than those the troops themselves sustained.
What I saw of these camps at Hiedelburg, Barberton, and elsewhere made me wonder that so much had been done, and so well done; but a gentle lady sent from England to look for faults and flaws, and who was lovingly doing her best to find them, complained to me that all the tents were not quite sound, which I can quite believe. Canvas that is in constant use won't last for ever, and it is quite conceivable that at the end of a two years' campaign some of the tents in use were visibly the worse for wear. Thousands of our soldiers, however, went for a while without tents of any sort, while the families of their foes were being thus carefully sheltered in such tents as could then be procured. It is, moreover, in some measure reassuring to remember that the winter weather here is almost perfect, not a solitary shower falling for weeks together, and that within these tents were army blankets both thick and plentiful.
Complaint was also made in my presence that mutton, and yet again mutton, and only mutton, was supplied to the refugee camps by way of fresh meat rations, and that, moreover, a whole carcase, being mostly skin and bone, sometimes weighed only about twelve pounds. It is quite true that the scraggy Transvaal sheep would be looked down on and despised by their fat and far-famed English cousins, especially at that season of the year when the veldt is as bare and barren as the Sahara; but it surely is no fault of the British Government that not a green blade can anywhere be seen during these long rainless months, and that consequently all the flocks look famished. South African mutton is, at the best of times, a by no means dainty dish to set before a king, much less before the wife of a belligerent Boer; but British officers and men had to feed upon it and be content.
That no fresh beef, however, was by any chance supplied sounded to me quite a new charge, and set me enquiring as to its accuracy. I therefore wrote to one of the meat contractors, whom I personally knew as a man of specially good repute, and in reply was informed that for seven months he had regularly supplied the refugee camp in his neighbourhood with fresh beef as well as mutton, neither being always prime, he said, but the best that in war time the veldt could be made to yield! Those who hunt for grievances at a time like this can always find them, though when weighed in the balances they may perchance prove even lighter than Transvaal sheep.
It is undeniable that the child mortality in these refugee camps has been high compared with the average that prevails in a healthy English town. But the South African average, especially during the fever season, usually reaches quite another figure. A Hollander predikant, whom I found among our prisoners, told me that he, his wife, and his three children were all down with fever, but were without physic, and almost without food, when the English found them in the low country beyond Pietersburg, and brought them into camp. Nearly all their neighbours were in the same sad plight, and several died before they could be moved. In that and similar cases the camp mortality was bound to be high, but it takes a free-tongued Britisher to assert that it was the fault of the ever brutal British. In some camps there was an epidemic of measles, which occasionally occurs even in the happy homeland; but in the least sanitary refugee camp the mortality was never so high as in some of our own military fever camps, where the epidemic raged like a plague, and for many a weary week refused to be stayed. It should be remembered also that all the healthy manhood of the country was either still out on commando or in the oversea camps provided for our prisoners of war. The men brought in as refugees were only those who had no fight left in them--the halt, the maimed, the blind, the sick of every sort, the bent by extreme old age, the dying. I was startled by the specimens I saw. Here were gathered all the frailnesses and infirmities of two Republics; and to test an improvised camp of such a class by the standards which we rightly apply to an average English town is as misleading as it is mischievous.
[Sidenote: The Grit of the Guards.]
When voyaging on The Nubia with the Scots Guards they often laughingly assured me it was the merest "walk over" that awaited us, and so in due time we discovered it to be. But it was a walk over well nigh the whole of South Africa, especially for these Scots. While during the second year of the war the Grenadiers were doing excellent work, chiefly in the northern part of Cape Colony, and the Coldstreams were similarly employed mainly along the lines of communication in the Orange River Colony, the Scots Guards trekked north, south, east and west. As a mere matter of mileage but much more as a matter of endurance they broke all previous records.
I have more than once written so warmly in praise of the daring and endurance of these men as to make me fear my words might for that very reason be heavily discounted. I was therefore delighted to find in Julian Ralph's "At Pretoria" a kindred eulogy: "When I passed through the camps of the Grenadiers, Scots, and Coldstream Guards the other day, I thought I never saw men more wretchedly and pitifully circumstanced. The officers are the drawing-room pets of London society, which in large measure they rule.... Well, there they were on the veldt looking like a lot of half drowned rats, as indeed they had been ever since the cold season and the rains had set in. You would not like to see a vagabond dog fare as they were doing. They had no tents. They could get no dry wood to make fires with. They were soaked to the bone night and day, and they stood about in mud toe-deep. Titled and untitled alike all were in the same scrape, and all were stoutly insisting that it didn't matter; it was all in the game."
[Sidenote: The Irregulars.]
During this second period of the war the staying powers of the Irregulars was no less severely tested. Here and there there was a momentary failure, but as a whole the men did superbly. Multitudes of the Colonials, who on completing their first term of service, returned to Australia, New Zealand, or Canada, actually re-enlisted for a second term, and in several cases paid their own passage to the Cape in order to rejoin. The Colonials are incomparably keener Imperialists than we ourselves claim to be. Some of the officers of these Irregular troops were themselves of a most irregular type, and in the case of town, or mine, or cattle, Guards were occasionally chosen, not with reference to any martial fitness they might possess, but because of their knowledge of and influence over the men they now commanded, and previously in civilian life had probably employed. One of these called his men to "fall in--two thick!" and another, when he wanted to halt his Guards, is reported to have thrown up his arms and said, "Whoa! Stop!" None need wonder if troops so handled sometimes found themselves in a tight corner. Yet of these newly recruited Irregulars, as of the most staid Reservists, there was good reason to be proud; and as concerning his own Irregulars in the Peninsular War Wellington said that with them he could go anywhere or do anything, so were these also as a whole entitled to similar confidence and to a similar tribute.
[Sidenote: The Testimony of the Cemetery.]
How fully these citizen soldiers hazarded their lives for the empire every cemetery in South Africa bears sad and silent witness, including the one I know so well in Pretoria. Indeed that particular burial-place is to me the most pathetic spot on earth, and enshrines in striking fashion the whole history of the Transvaal, whereof only one or two illustrations can here be given. In a tiny walled enclosure--a cemetery within a cemetery--filled with the soldier victims of our earlier wars, I found a slab whereon was this inscription:--
"To the memory of Corporal Henry Watson,
Who died at Pretoria 17th May 1877; aged 25 years.
He was the first British Soldier to give up his
life in the service of his Country, on the annexation
of the Transvaal Republic!"
Near by on another slab I read:--
"In loving memory of John Mitchell Elliott
Aged 37. Captain and Paymaster of the 94th Regiment,
Who was killed for Queen and Country
while crossing the Vaal River on the night of
Dec. 29th, 1880."
There, too, I found one other slab which recorded in this strange style the closing of a most ignobleCHAPTER in our imperial history:--
"This Cemetery was planted, and the graves left in good repair by the men of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, prior to the evacuation of Pretoria, 1881."
Two brief decades rush away, and once again that same cemetery opens wide its gates to welcome new battalions of British soldiers, each of whom like his forerunner of 1877 "gave up his life in the service of his country"; but these late-comers represent every province and almost every hamlet of a far-reaching empire, as well as every branch of the service; while over all and applicable to all alike is the epitaph on the tomb of the Hampshire Volunteers, "We answered duty's call!"
[Sidenote: Death and Life in Pretoria.]
The Dutch section of that cemetery also witnessed some sensational scenes during the period now referred to.
On July 20th Mrs Kruger, the ex-President's wife, died, and as one of a prodigious crowd I attended her homely funeral. She was herself well-nigh the homeliest woman in Pretoria, and one of the most illiterate; but precisely because she was content to be her simple God-fearing self, put on no airs, and intermeddled not in matters beyond her ken, she was universally respected and regretted.
During this second period of the war the troops in Pretoria continued to justify Lord Roberts' description of them as "the best-behaved army in the world." The Sunday evening services in Wesley Church were always crowded with them, and the nightly meetings held in the S.A.G.M. marquees were not only wonderfully well attended but were also marked by much spiritual power. Pretoria, after we took possession of it, witnessed many a tear, and occasional tragedies; but it was in Pretoria I heard a young Canadian soldier sing the following song, which aptly illustrates the type of life to which many a trooper has more or less fully attained during this South African campaign:--
I'm walking close to Jesus' side,
So close that I can hear
The softest whispers of His love
In fellowship so dear,
And feel His great Almighty hand
Protects me in this hostile land.
Oh wondrous bliss, oh joy sublime,
I've Jesus with me all the time!
I'm leaning on His loving breast
Along life's weary way;
My path illumined by His smiles
Grows brighter day by day;
No foes, no woes, my heart can fear
With my Almighty Friend so near.
Oh wondrous bliss, oh joy sublime,
I've Jesus with me all the time!