A complete change has come to the Australians who are in Africa under Colonel Hoad. We have left General Methuen's column, and joined that of General French. Formerly we were at Enslin, within sound of the guns that were fired daily at Magersfontein; now we are two hundred and twenty miles away, and are within easy patrolling distance of Colesberg.
Before we left Methuen's column we had one small night affair, which, however, did not amount to a great deal, though it has been very much exaggerated in local newspaper circles, and will, I fear, be unduly boomed in some of the Australian journals. The whole affair simply amounted to this. One hundred of the Victorian Mounted Rifles went out to make a demonstration towards Sunnyside, in Cape Colony, where a number of rebels were known to congregate. A hundred Queenslanders and Canadians were with them, when a corporal and a trooper of the Victorians saw an unarmed Boer and a nigger riding towards them in the twilight. The Boer, as soon as he was challenged, wheeled his horse and rode off at a gallop; our men rode after the runaway, but would not fire upon the white man because they thought he was simply a farmer who had got rather a bad scare at meeting armed men.
The Boer, however, played a deep game; he rode for a bit of a rise composed of broken ground, where, unknown to our scouts, a party of rebels lay concealed. As soon as the flying rebel was in safety the Boers opened fire, shooting Peter Falla, the trooper, twice through the arm, one bullet entering a few inches below the shoulder, the other shattering the bone a little way above the elbow. The corporal got away safely, taking his wounded comrade with him. Our fellows rode out and swept the veldt for miles, but saw no more of the enemy. So ended what has grandiloquently been termed "an Australian engagement," which, I may add, is just the kind of flapdoodle our troopers do not want. What they most desire on earth at present is an opportunity to show what they are made of. They don't want cheap newspaper puffs, nor laudatory speeches from generals. They want to get into grip with the enemy, and, as an Australian, let me say now that Imperial federation will get a greater shock by keeping these fine fellows out of action than by anything else that could happen under heaven. They did not come here on a picnic party, they did not come for a circus; they don't want a lot of maudlin sentiment wasted on them whilst they stay out of the firing line to mind the jam, or give the African girls a treat.
Mr. Chamberlain has made a good many mistakes in regard to the war, mistakes that will live in history when his very name is forgotten, but he need not add to them by alienating Australian sentiment by coddling men who came across the Indian Ocean to prove to the whole world that on the field of battle they are as good as their sires. Our fellows have got hold of a rumour (the prophets only could tell whence camp rumours originate) that instructions have been received from England that they are to be kept out of danger, and a madder lot of men you could not find anywhere between here and Tophet. They wanted to send a petition to Lord Roberts asking to be allowed to face the enemy, but though the officers are quite as sore as the men, they could not permit such a breach of discipline. So now the men ease their feelings by jeering at each other.
"What are we here fer, Bill?"
"Oh, get yer head felt; any fool knows why we are here. There's a blessed marmalade factory somewhere about, and we are going to mind it whilst the British Tommy does the fighting."
"Marmalade be d----!" chirruped a voice down the lines. "Think they'd trust us to look after anything so important?"
"Oh, you're a blessed prophet, you are," snarls the little bugler. "P'raps you'll tell us what our game is."
"Easy enough, little 'un. Our officers 've got to practise making mud maps in the dust with a stick, and we've got to fool around and keep the flies away."
"I suppose they'll keep us at this till the war's over, and then send us to England, 'nd give us a bloomin' medal, 'nd tell us then we are gory, crimson heroes. Ugh!" grunts a big West Australian with a face like a nightmare, and a voice that comes out of his chest with a sound like a steam saw coming through a wet log.
"Don't know about England 'nd the medal, 'Beauty,'" chirrups a Sydney gunner, "but I know what they'll give us in Australia if we go back without a fight."
"P'raps it'll be a mansion, or a sheep station, or a stud of racehorses," meekly suggests a tired-looking South Australian, with a derisive twist of his under lip.
"No, they won't present us with a racing stud," lisps the gunner, "but, by G----, they'll shy chaff enough at us to keep all the bloomin' horses between 'ere and 'ell, and the girls will send us a kid's feedin' bottle, as a mark of feelin' and esteem, every Valentine's Day for ten years to come, because of the glorious name we made for Australia on the bloody fields of war in Africa."
"Fields o' war--fields o' whisky 'nd watermelons! Oh, d---- it! I'm going ter stop writing ter my girl before she writes ter tell me that a white feather don't suit a girl's complexion in Australia."
He lifts his bugle, and sounds "Feed up" so savagely that the horses strain on their leg ropes and kick themselves into a lather as hot as their riders' tempers, the long, loose-limbed troopers move off, cursing artistically in their beards at the very thought of the roasting they will get from the witty-tongued, red-lipped girls of Australia, when--
They cross the rolling ocean,
Back from the fields of war,
To show the British medal
They got for guarding a store.
To show the British medal
On stations, towns, and farms,
They got for guarding the marmalade,
Far away from war's alarms.
To show the British medal,
With a blush of angry shame,
For which they went to risk their lives
In young Australia's name.
To show the British medal,
With a sneer that's half a sob,
Ere they pawn it to their uncle,
And go and drink the "bob."
When we received notice to move away from Enslin down the line through Graspan, Belmont, Orange River, to De Aar, our fellows were naturally very wrathful; they had done splendid work for many weeks up that way; they had dug trenches, sunk wells, drilled unceasingly; they had watched the kopjes and scoured the veldt, and all that they were told to do they did like soldiers--readily and uncomplainingly. The cold nights and the scorching days, the monotonous drudgery, found them always ready and willing, because they believed that when the order came for a great battle at Magersfontein, or an onward march to Kimberley, they would be in the thick of it. But for some reason, known only to those who gave the order, they were sent away from the front, and they felt it keenly. From De Aar they were sent on to Naauwpoort, and from this latter place they were forwarded on to Rensburg.
At Naauwpoort nearly all the Australians were mounted, and now acted as mounted infantry. The horses supplied are Indian ponies, formerly used by the Madras Cavalry. They are a first-class lot of cattle, well suited to the work that lies before them, and have evidently been selected by someone who knows his business a good deal better than a great number of his colleagues. General French inspected the men at Rensburg during the first day or two, and seemed fairly well satisfied with them, though, of course, they did not make a first-class show in their initial efforts on horseback. A great number of them rode well, but very few of them had ever gone through a course of mounted drill, and it will take a week or two to knock them into shape for this work; though, when once out of the saddle, they are not in any way inferior to the best British regiments I have seen. But they are keen to learn, and very willing, so that I expect to see them make wonderfully rapid strides towards efficiency as mounted men. They seem to feel that their only chance to get a fight is to become high grade soldiers, and to that end they will stand all the work that can be crowded into them. I have no idea what their future movements will be, nor do I think anyone else connected with the regiment has; but one thing seems certain, that sooner or later they will fall foul of the enemy in small skirmishing parties, as the kopjes for a length of twenty miles are infested by little bands of Boers, who have a knack of disappearing as soon as a British force draws near them, only, however, to crop up again in a fresh place, a short distance away.
For the Boer is a past master in this kind of warfare, and knows how to play his own game to perfection. What the Goorkha is in Indian warfare, so the Boer is in Africa. He does not fight in our style, but that does not say that he cannot fight, neither does it argue that he is devoid of courage. As a matter of fact, the more I have seen of this country, and note what the Boers have done in opposition to all the might of Great Britain, the more I am impressed with the idea that our alleged Intelligence Department wants cutting down and burning root and branch, for it must have been absolutely rotten, or unquestionably corrupt. We were led by members of this Department to believe that the Boer was a cowardly kind of veldt pariah, a degenerate offshoot of a fine old parent stock. Well, the Boer is nothing of the kind. He is not in any way degenerate. He is a good fighting man, according to his lights. He does not wear a stand-up collar, nor an eyeglass, nor spats to his veldtschoon. He does not talk with a silly lisp or an inane drawl. Therefore, the useless fellows whom Britain trusted with the important task of watching him and sizing him up counted him as a boor as well as a Boer--a mere country clod. But now, from the rocky hills, these clods, these sons of semi-white savages, laugh at us derisively, and answer our jeers with rifles that know how to speak in a language that even the bravest of our troops have learnt to understand--and respect.
I have a keen recollection of the last Franco-Prussian War. I remember how the English newspapers ridiculed the French military authorities because, whilst the Germans had accurate maps of every province within the French borders, the French themselves were grossly ignorant of their own territory. Now we can eat our own sarcasms and enjoy the bitter fruit of our own irony, for, thanks to the Intelligence Department connected with the War Office in Great Britain, we to-day stand precisely in the same position towards our African enemy as France did towards Prussia. A glance at the country through which I have recently passed shows only too clearly that, whilst Paul Kruger and his advisers knew our full strength to a man, we, on our part, knew nothing about him or the men, money, or ordnance at his command. We knew nothing of the country which had been patiently fortified by the best skilled military engineers in Europe. We know nothing of his rocky, well-fortified country, which lies behind that which we have already attacked. Our generals, instead of being supplied with maps covering every inch of country within the enemy's borders, have to gather information at the bayonet's point at a loss to the Empire in men, money, and in prestige. If our commanders blunder, who is to blame but the criminally negligent officials who have supplied them with false or foolish data to work upon? The Empire has been betrayed, either wilfully or through crass idleness upon the part of men who have dipped deeply into the Empire's coffers, and the nation should demand their impeachment, apart from their position, place, or power, and punishment of the most drastic kind should follow speedily in the footsteps of impeachment.
The failure of General Buller to relieve Ladysmith was not due to any want of sagacity on the part of that General. It was not due to any want of bravery on the part of his troops. The General is worthy of his rank, and worthy of the confidence of the nation, and his troops are as good as the men who, under the same flag, taught the Russians to respect the power of Britain. The cause of the failure lay mainly in the want of knowledge on our part concerning the strength of the country the Boers held, and the strength of the country they had to fall back upon when hard pressed.
That information the "Intelligence" Department ought to have been able to place in the hands of General Buller before he moved forward to the relief of the beleaguered garrison in Ladysmith. But they could not give what they had never possessed.
Right up to the present moment, when the Boers have been forced to meet our troops at close quarters, they have been found to possess no other arms than the rifle. This has given truth to the belief that the enemy as an attacking force is next door to useless, as no men, no matter how brave and determined, could do very much damage to first-class troops armed with the bayonet.
However, there is a whisper in the air that the Boers are not deficient in side-arms; it is rumoured that the President of the Boer Republic has immense supplies of offensive as well as defensive weapons safely placed away until they may be required Right up to date his war policy has been to remain passive, excepting in a few isolated positions, allowing the British to attack his generals in almost impregnable positions, and by so doing put heart into the burghers, and dishearten our forces. But should the tide of war continue to roll onward in his favour he may attempt to put in force the oft-told Boer threat, and try to sweep the British into the sea. Should that day dawn, it is rumoured that the enemy will be found well supplied with side-arms and with mercenaries trained to their use in one of the best schools that modern times have known. Where do these rumours come from? Well, a Boer prisoner, taunted perhaps by a guard, loses his temper and drops a hint, or a Boer farmer, exultant over the latest news of his countrymen's success, lifts the veil a little, and a jealously-guarded secret drops out; or, again, a Boer's wife or daughter, flinging a taunt at a cursed "Rooinek," allows her temper to run away with her discretion. There are a hundred ways in which such things get about; only straws, perhaps, but a straw can point the way windward. A talkative Kaffir who has been reared on a Dutch farm will at times give things away that would cost him his life if the length of his tongue was known to his master; especially will the nigger talk if his mouth be judiciously moistened with Cape smoke brandy.
Information that comes to a war correspondent's hand is of many colours, shapes, and sizes, but if he is born to the business he pieces the whole together and picks out what seemeth good to his own soul at the finish. Sometimes, at the end of a week's hard work, he finds himself possessed of a patchwork of information like unto Joseph's coat of many colours, but it is hard fortune indeed if he cannot find something in the lot to repay him for his earnest endeavours.