Australia has had her first taste of war, not a very great or very important performance, but we have buried our dead, and that at least binds us more closely to the Motherland than ever before. The Queenslanders, the wild riders, and the bushmen of the north-eastern portion of the continent have been the first to pay their tribute to nationhood with the life blood of her sons, two of whom--Victor James and McLeod--were buried by their comrades on the scene of action a couple of days ago, whilst half a dozen others, including Lieutenant Aide, fell more or less seriously wounded. The story of the fight is simply told; there is no necessity for any wild vapouring in regard to Australian courage, no need for hysterical praise. Our fellows simply did what they were told to do in a quiet and workmanlike manner, just as we who know them expected that they would; we are all proud of them, and doubly proud that the men in the fight with them were our cousins from Canada.
The most noteworthy fact about the engagement is to be gleaned by noting that the Australians adopted Boer tactics, and so escaped the slaughter that has so often fallen to the lot of the British troops when attacking similar positions. Before describing the fight it may be as well to give some slight idea of the disposition of the opposing forces. Our troops held the railway line all the way from Cape Town to Modder River. At given distances, or at points of strategic importance, strong bodies of men are posted to keep the Boers from raiding, or from interfering with the railway or telegraph lines. Such a force, consisting of Munster Fusiliers, two guns of R.H. Artillery, the Canadians, and the Queenslanders, were posted at Belmont under Colonel Pilcher. The enemy had no fixed camping ground. Mounted on hardy Basuto ponies, carrying no provisions but a few mealies and a little biltong, armed only with rifles, they sweep incessantly from place to place, and are an everlasting source of annoyance to us. At one moment they may be hovering in the kopjes around us at Enslin, waiting to get a chance to sneak into the kopjes that immediately overlook our camp, but thanks to the magnificent scouting qualities of the Victorian Mounted Rifles, they have never been able to do so. During the night they disperse, and take up their abode on surrounding farms as peaceful tillers of the soil. In a day or so they organise again, and swoop down on some other place, such as Belmont. Their armies, under men like Cronje or Joubert, seldom move from strongly-entrenched positions.
The people I am referring to as reivers are farmers recruited by local leaders, and are a particularly dangerous class of people to deal with, as they know every inch of this most deceptive country. As soon as they are whipped they make off to wives and home, and meet the scouts with a bland smile and outstretched hand. It is no use trying to get any information out of them, for no man living can look so much like an unmitigated fool when he wants to as the ordinary, every-day farmer of the veldt. I know Chinamen exceptionally well, I have had an education in the ways of the children of Confucius; but no Chinaman that I have come in contact with could ever imitate the half-idiotic smile, the patient, ox-like placidity of countenance, the meek, religious look of holy resignation to the will of Providence which comes naturally to the ordinary Boer farmer. It is this faculty which made our very clever Army Intelligence people rank the farmer of the veldt as a fool. Yet, if I am any judge, and I have known men in many lands, our friend of the veldt is as clever and as crafty as any Oriental I have yet mixed with.
Now for the Australian fight. On the day before Christmas, Colonel Pilcher, at Belmont, got wind of the assemblage of a considerable Boer force at a place 30 miles away, called Sunnyside Farm, and he determined to try to attack it before the enemy could get wind of his intention. To this end he secured every nigger for some miles around--which proved his good sense, as the niggers are all in the pay of the Boers, no matter how loyal they may pretend to be to the British, a fact which the British would do well to take heed of, for it has cost them pretty dearly already. On Christmas Eve he started out, taking two guns of the Royal Navy Artillery, a couple of Maxims, all the Queenslanders, and a few hundred Canadians. Colonel Pilcher's force numbered in all about 600 men. He marched swiftly all night, and got to Sunnyside Farm in good time Christmas Day. The Boers had not a ghost of an idea that our men were near them, and were completely beaten at their own game, the surprise party being complete. The enemy were found in a laager in a strong position in some rather steep kopjes, and it was at once evident that they were expecting strong reinforcements from surrounding farms. Colonel Pilcher at once extended his forces so as to try to surround the kopjes. Whilst this was going on, Lieutenant Aide, with four Queensland troopers, was sent to the far left of what was supposed to be the Boer position. His orders were to give notice of any attempt at retreat on the part of the enemy. He did his work well. Getting close to the kopje, he saw a number of the enemy slinking off, and at once challenged them. As he did so a dozen Boers dashed out of the kopje, and Aide opened fire on them, which caused the Boers to fire a volley at him. Lieutenant Aide fell from his horse with two bullets in his body; one went through the fleshy part of his stomach, entering his body sideways, the other went into his thigh. A trooper named McLeod was shot through the heart, and fell dead. Both the other troopers were wounded. Trooper Rose caught a horse, and hoisted his lieutenant into the saddle, and sent him out of danger.
Meantime the R.H. Battery, taking range from Lieutenant Aide's fire, opened out on the enemy. Their guns put a great fear into the Boers, and a general bolt set in. The Boers fired as they cleared, and if our fellows had been formed up in the style usual to the British army in action, we should have suffered heavily; but the Queensland bushmen had dropped behind cover, and soon had complete possession of the kopjes; another trooper named Victor Jones was shot through the brain, and fourteen others were more or less badly wounded. The Boers then surrendered. We took 40 prisoners, and found about 14 dead Boers on the ground, besides a dozen wounded. They were all Cape Dutch, no Transvaalers being found in their ranks. We secured 40,000 rounds of their ammunition, 300 Martini rifles, and only one Mauser rifle, which was in the possession of the Boer commander. After destroying all that we took, we moved on, and had a look at some of the farms near by, as from some of the documents found in camp it was certain that the whole district was a perfect nest of rebellion. Quite a little store of arms and ammunition was discovered by this means, and the occupants of the farms were therefore transported to Belmont. Our fellows carried the little children and babies in their arms all the way, and marched into Belmont singing, with the little ones on their shoulders. Every respect was shown to the women, old and young, and to the old men, but the young fellows were closely guarded all the time. The Canadians did not lose a single man, neither did any of the others except the Queenslanders.
Another Boer commando, about 1,000 strong, with two batteries of artillery, is now hovering in the ranges away to the north-west of Enslin, but Colonel Hoad is not likely to be tempted out to meet them, since his orders are to hold Enslin against attack. However, should they venture to make a dash for Enslin, they will get a pretty bad time, as the Australians there are keen for a fight.
Concerning farming, it is an unknown quantity here, as we in Australia understand it. These people simply squat down wherever they can find a natural catchment for water. There is no clearing to be done, as the land is quite devoid of timber. They put nigger labour on, and build a farmhouse. These farmhouses are much better built than those which the average pioneer farmer in Australia owns. They make no attempt at adornment, but build plain, substantial houses, containing mostly about six rooms. The roofs are mostly flat, and the frontages plain to ugliness. They do no fencing, except where they go in for ostrich breeding. When they farm for feathers they fence with wire about six feet in height. This kind of farming is very popular with the better class of Boers, as it entails very little labour, and no outlay beyond the initial expense. They raise just enough meal to keep themselves, but do not farm for the market. They breed horses and cattle; the horses are a poor-looking lot, as the Boers do not believe much in blood. They never ride or work mares, but use them as brood stock. This is a bad plan, as young and immature mares breed early on the veldt, and throw weedy stock. Their cattle, however, are attended to on much better lines, and most of the beef that I have seen would do credit to any station in Australia, or any American ranch. They mostly raise a few sheep and goats; the sheep are a poor lot, the wool is of a very inferior class, and the mutton poor. I don't know much about goats, so will pass them, though I very much doubt if any Australian squatter would give them grass room.
On most of the farms a small orchard is found enclosed in stone walls. Here again the ignorance of the Boers is very marked; the fruit is of poor quality, though the variety is large. Thus, one finds in these orchards pears, apples, grapes, plums, pomegranates, peaches, quinces, apricots, and almonds. The fruit is harsh, small, and flavourless, owing to bad pruning, want of proper manure, and good husbandry generally. The Boer seems to think that he has done all that is required of him when he has planted a tree; all that follows he leaves to nature, and he would much rather sit down and pray for a beautiful harvest than get up and work for it. He is a great believer in the power of prayer. He prays for a good crop of fruit; if it comes he exalts himself and takes all the credit; if the crop fails he folds his hands and remarks that it was God's will that things should so come to pass. He knocks all the work he can out of his niggers, but does precious little himself. In stature he is mostly tall, thin, and active. He moves with a quick, shuffling gait, which is almost noiseless. Some of his women folk are beautiful, while others are fat and clumsy, and are never likely to have their portraits hung on the walls of the Royal Academy.