Lately I have been over a very considerable tract of country in the saddle. I might remain at one spot and glean the information from various sources, but do not care to do my business in that manner, simply because one is then at the mercy of one's informants. I find it quite hard enough to get at the truth even when it is personally sought for. It is really astounding how lies increase and multiply as they spread from camp to camp. At one spot a fellow ventilates an opinion that a big battle will be fought next day at a certain spot; some other person catches a portion of the conversation, and promptly tells his neighbour that a big battle has taken place at the spot mentioned. A little later a passing train pulls up at that camp, and a party possessing a picturesque and vivid imagination at once informs the guard that a fearful fight has occurred, in which a General, a Colonel, twelve subs., and six hundred men have been killed on our side, with fourteen hundred wounded and nine hundred prisoners. The Boer losses are generally estimated at something like five times that number.
The guard tells the tale later on to some traveller, who embellishes it, and passes it along as a fact. He goes into details, tells harrowing stories concerning hair-raising escapes from shot and shell. He splashes the surrounding rocks with gouts of blood, and then shudders dismally at the sight his fancy has conjured up. When the thrilled listener has refreshed the tale-teller from his whisky flask, the romancist takes up the thread of his narrative once more, and tells how the Lancers thundered over the shivering veldts in pursuit of flying hordes of foemen, and for awhile, like some graveyard ghoul, he revels in the moans of the dying and the blood of the slain. Another pull at the flask sets him going again like clockwork, and he makes a vivid picture out of the thunder of the guns as our gallant (they are always gallant) fellows bombarded the enemy from the heights.
Then he switches off from the artillery, and tells a blood-curdling tale of Boer treachery and cowardice. He tells how the enemy held out the white flag to coax our men to stop firing. Then, in awe-inspiring tones, he sobs forth a tale of dark and dismal war, how our soldiers respected the white flag and rested on their arms, only to be mowed down by a withering rifle fire from the canaille who represent the enemy in the field. Having got so far, he does not feel justified in stopping until he has thrown in some flowery language concerning a Boer cannonade upon British ambulance waggons, full of wounded; from that he drifts by easy and natural stages to Dum-Dum bullets, and the robbing of the wounded, and insults to the slain. And that is very often the person who is quoted in newspaper interviews--as a gentleman who was an eye-witness, and etc., etc., etc.
And yet, for some reason which I have been unable to gauge, the military authorities talk of sending all correspondents away from the front. It seems to me that it would be far better to give bonâ fide newspaper men every reasonable opportunity of discovering the truth instead of hampering them in any way. I fail to see why Great Britain and her Colonies should be kept in the dark concerning the progress of the war, for all the foreign Powers will be well supplied with information from the Boer lines; and, if we are blocked, some at least of the British newspapers will most assuredly go to foreign sources for news, if they are not allowed to obtain it for themselves. Others will content themselves with news gathered haphazard, and the last state of the Army, as far as the public mind is concerned, will be far worse than the first.
Colonel Hoad, who commands the Australians at Enslin, has offered the seven hundred and sixteen men, who up to date have acted as infantry, to the authorities as mounted infantry, and the offer has been accepted, much to the delight of the men, all of whom are very eager to get into the saddle, as they imagine that when their mounts arrive they will get a chance to go into action. They have been practising horsemanship during the day, and did fairly well, as many of them are expert riders, many more are fair; but a few of them are more at home on a sand-heap than in a saddle. There are not many of the latter kind, however. They will soon knock into shape, for Colonel Hoad hates the sight of a slovenly horseman as badly as a duck hates a dust storm. He is an untiring rider himself, and will work the beggars who cannot ride until they can.
After the arrival in Capetown of the two celebrated soldiers, Lords Roberts and Kitchener, I made it my business to converse with as many Boers as possible in regard to the two Generals, and was astonished to find how much they knew concerning them. How, and from whom, they get information passes my comprehension, but the fact remains that they knew all over the country as soon, if not sooner, than we did that our great leaders had arrived. They do not seem to fear them, though they invariably speak of them as wonderful soldiers. "God and Oom Paul Kruger will look after us," is their creed. Their faith in President Kruger is simply boundless. Not only do they fancy that he is a man of dauntless courage, great sagacity, and indomitable will, but they really seem to think that he has God's special blessing concerning this war.
He is to the Boers what Mahomet was to the wild tribesmen of Arabia, and it is as impossible to shake their faith in him as it would be to shake their faith in the story of Mount Calvary. It is all very well for a certain class of writers to attempt to cast unbounded ridicule upon these men and their leader, but it is not by ridicule that they can be conquered. It is not by contemptuous utterances or by untrue reports that they can be overcome. It is not by belittling them that we can raise ourselves in the eyes of the men of to-day or ennoble ourselves upon the pages of history. It would be conduct more in accordance with the traditions of a great nation if we gave them credit for the virtues they possess and the courage they display.
It is hard to drag any sort of information from a Boer, whether bond or free, but from what I can pick up they are perfectly satisfied with what they have done up to date. They think that President Kruger has astonished the world, and they wag their heads, and give one to understand that the same old gentleman has a good many more surprises in store for us. It is impossible to get a direct statement of any kind from them, but by patching fragments together I incline to the opinion that they really count on Cape Colony rising when Kruger wants a rising. Personally, from my own limited observations, I would not give a fig of tobacco for the alleged loyalty of the Cape Colony. If I am correct, this "surprise" will give the enemy an additional force of 45,000 men, most of whom will be found able to ride well and shoot straight.
It is nonsense to say that they will only form a mob destitute of discipline and unprovided with officers. They will not be a mob, they will be guerilla soldiers of the same type that the North and South in America provided, and they will take a lot of whipping at their own peculiar tactics. As for officers--well, up to date, they have not gone short of them. It is true they do not bear the hallmark of any modern university, but they know how to lead men into battle, all the same. They wear no uniforms, neither do they adorn themselves with any of the stylish trappings of war, but they are brainy, resourceful men, highly useful if not ornamental. Like Oliver Cromwell's hard-faced "Roundheads," they are the children of a great emergency, not much to look at, but full of a "get there" quality, which many school-bred soldiers lack entirely.
I rode down to Belmont a couple of days ago, and had a look at the Canadians and Queenslanders, who are quartered there. They are all in excellent health and spirits, and seem to be just about hungry for a fight. The Munsters, who are quartered there, are simply spoiling for a brush with the enemy, and seem to be as full of ginger as any men I have ever seen.
And every one of them with whom I conversed--and I chatted with a good many of the burly young Irishmen--expressed a keen desire to meet in open fight the Irish brigade now fighting on the side of the Boers. Should it ever come to pass during the progress of the war, I devoutly hope that I may be handy to witness the struggle. It will not be a long-range fight if I am any judge of men and things; it will be settled at close quarters, and the "baynit and the butt" will play a prominent part in the mêlée.
A few of our New Zealand fellows got to close quarters with the enemy recently up Colesberg way, and they did just as we knew they would when it came to the crossing of steel. The Boers stormed the position, and the New Zealanders joined in the bayonet charge which drove them back. Our men had a couple killed and one or two wounded. The enemy left a goodish number of dead on the field when they retired, about thirty of whom met their fate at the bayonet's point. The British losses were small. There was nothing remarkable about the behaviour of the New Zealanders in action; they simply did coolly and well what they were ordered to do, and proved that they are quite as good fighting material as anything the Old Country can produce. The gravest misfortune which has yet befallen any of the Australians happened at the same locality, when eighteen New South Welshmen allowed themselves to be pinned in a tight place. Eight escaped, but the others are either prisoners or killed. We do not like the surrender business, and would rather see our men do as their fathers and grandfathers used to do--bite the motto, "No surrender," into the butts of their rifles with their teeth, and fight their way out of a hot corner. There has been a good deal too much of this throwing up of arms during the present campaign, and I hope that we shall hear less of it in the future.
We had a nasty night here at Enslin. Word reached our headquarters that three thousand mounted Boers were on the move towards our camp, which, for strategic purposes, is the most important between Methuen's column and De Aar. If the enemy could take Enslin they could make things very awkward for General Methuen, because they would then have him between two fires. As soon as the news came our fellows, with the Gordons, were ordered to occupy the surrounding heights. All night long, and well on into the day, we held them until we learned that the enemy had decided not to attack us. Had they done so they would have paid bitterly for their rashness, for the place is practically impregnable. A thousand resolute and skilful men, who knew how to use both rifle and bayonet, could hold the place against 20,000 of the finest troops in the world, providing the defenders were not hopelessly crushed by an immense artillery force.
General Hector Macdonald went through here the other day to take the command of the Highland Brigade, in the place of the late General Wauchope. The "Scots" who were with us lined up and gave the General a thrilling welcome, whilst our fellows, who are not usually demonstrative, crowded around the railway line to get a look at the brilliant soldier who, by sheer merit, dauntless pluck, and iron resolution, forced his way from the ranks to the high place he holds. The Australians had expected to see a gaunt, prematurely aged man, war-worn and battle-broken, and were surprised to see a dashing, gallant-looking man, who might in appearance comfortably have passed for five-and-thirty. The grey-clad men, in soft slouch hats, from the land of the Southern Cross, lounging about with pipes in their teeth, did not break into hysterical cheering--they are not built that way; they simply looked at the man whose full history every one of them knew as well as he knew the way into the front door of a "pub." But their flashing eyes and clenched hands told in language more eloquent than a salvo of cheers that this was their ideal man, the man they would follow rifle in hand up the brimstone heights of hell itself, if need be; aye, and stand sentry there until the day of judgment, if Hector Macdonald gave the order.