Many and wonderful are the stories written and published concerning the Boer and his habits when on the war-path. Most of these stories are written by men who take good care never to get within a hundred miles of the fighting line, but content themselves with an easy chair, a cigar, a bottle of whisky, and carpet slippers on the stoep of some good hotel in a pretty little Boer town. To scribes of this calibre flock a certain class of British resident, who is always full to the very ears of his own dauntless courage, his deathless loyalty to the Queen and Empire, his love for the soldier, and his hatred of the Boer. This gallant class of British resident has half a million excuses ready to his hand to explain why he did not take a rifle and fight when the war summons rang clarion-like through the land. Then he grits his teeth, knits his eyebrows, clenches his hands in spasmodic wrath, throws out his chest, and tells his auditors, in a voice husky with concentrated wrath and whisky, what he intends to do the next time the damnable Boer rises to fight. The old British pioneer may have whelped a few million good fighting stock in his time, but this class of animal is no lion's whelp; it is a thing all mouth and no manners, a shallow-brained, cowardly creature, always howling about the Boer, but too discreet to go out and fight him, though ready at all times to malign him, to ridicule him as a farmer or a fighter, and it is a perfect bear's feast to this hybrid animal to get hold of a gullible newspaper correspondent to tell him gruesome tales relative to Boer fighting laagers.
I had one of this peculiar species at me the other day in Burghersdorp, and he painted a Boer laager so vividly, between nips at my flask, that if I had not seen a few laagers myself I should have felt bad over the matter. He pictured the smell of that laager in language so intense, with gestures so graphic, that some of his auditors had to hold their nostrils with handkerchiefs, whilst they stirred the circumambient atmosphere with cardboard fans, and I could not help wondering, if the portrait of the smell was so awful, what the thing itself must be like. Flushed with success, the narrator pursued his subject to the bitter extremity. He conjured up scenes of half-buried men lying amongst the rocks surrounding the laager: here a leg, there an arm, further on a ghastly human head protruding from amidst the scattered boulders, until I had only to close my eyes to fancy I was in a charnel-house, where Goths and Huns were holding devilish revelry. The B.R. paused, and dropped his voice two octaves lower, and the crowd on the balcony craned their heads further forward, so that they might not miss a single word. He told of the women in the laagers, the wild, unholy mirth of women, who moved from camp fire to camp fire, with dishevelled hair streaming down their backs, with tossing arms, bare to the shoulders, and blood besmeared, not the blood of goats or kine, but the blood of soldiers--our soldiers. Thomas Atkins defunct, and done for by the she-furies.
He waded in again when the shudder which shook the crowd had died away, and hinted, as that class of shallow-souled creature loves to hint, of orgies under the dim light of the stars, or between the flickering light of smoking camp fires, until the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah seemed to be crowding all around us in a peculiarly beastly and uncomfortable fashion. Then he lay back in his chair and sighed; but anon he sprang upright, and, with flashing eyes and extended arms, wanted to know what the ---- Roberts meant by offering peace with honour to such a people. "Mow them down!" he yelled. "Shoot them on sight--no quarter for such devils! Kill 'em off! kill 'em off! kill 'em off!" and he half sobbed, half sighed himself into silence, whilst the audience gazed on him as on one who knew what war, wild, red, carmine war, was. I broke in on his stillness, as newspaper men who know the game are apt to do, for I wanted data, I wanted facts, and I had not swallowed his yarn as freely as he had swallowed my whisky.
"Born in this country?" I asked.
"Yorkshire," he answered laconically.
"Been in Africa long?"
"'Bout five years."
"Where did you put in most of your time before the war?"
"What was your calling, or profession, or business, or means of livelihood?"
"General agent, sharebroker, correspondent for some local papers."
H'm; I knew the class of animal well--general jackal; do the dirty work of any trade, and master of none.
"Where were you when the war broke out?"
He scowled savagely: "Johannesburg."
"Have the same hatred for the Boers before the war as you have now?"
"Why didn't you pick up a rifle and have a hand in the fighting?"
"I'm not a blessed 'Tommy,' sir! Do you take me for a d---- 'Tommy,' sir?"
"No; oh, no, I assure you I did nothing of the kind. But--er, have you been in the hands of the Boers since the war started?"
"Yes, until our troops marched in here a day or two ago."
"H'm. Did they rob you?"
"Did they ill-treat you--knock you about, and that sort of thing?"
"Why do you hate them so bitterly, then?"
"Oh, I can't stand a cursed Boer at any price. Thinks he's as good as a Britisher all the time, and puts on side; and he's a cursed tyrant in his heart, and would rub us out if he could."
"Yes, the Boer thought himself as good a man as the Britishers he met out this way," I replied, "and he backed his opinion with his life and his rifle. Why didn't you do the same if you reckoned yourself a better man?"
"Why should I; don't we pay 'Tommy' to do that for us?"
"Perhaps we do; but, concerning those Boer laagers you have been telling us about: where, when, and how did you see them; what was the name of the place; who was the Boer general in command, or the field cornet, or landdrost? I did not know the Boers gave British refugees the free run of their war laagers, and I'm interested in the matter, being a scribe myself and a man of peace. Just give me a few names and dates and facts, will you?"
"No, I won't," he snarled. "You seem to doubt my word, you do, and I'm as good a Britisher as you are any day, and you think you can come along and pump information out of me for nothing; but I'm too fly for that--they don't breed fools in Yorkshire."
"Well, sir, as it seems to suit your temper," I said as sweetly as I could, "I'll make it a business proposition. I'll bet you fifty pounds to five you have never put your head inside a Boer laager in war time in your life. If you have, just name it and give me a few facts."
The B.R. rose wrathfully and muttered something about it being a d---- good job for me that I was a wounded man and had one arm in a sling, or he'd show me a heap of things in the fistic line which I should remember for the rest of my life; but as I only laughed he slouched off, and now, when we meet in the street, we pass without speaking. But I got his history, all the same, from one of the Cape Police, who told me the beggar had refused to join a volunteer regiment when the war broke out, and had remained the whole time in a quiet little Boer village as a British refugee, and had not seen the outside, let alone the inside, of a Boer fighting laager in all his lying life. Yet such cravens at times help to make history--of a kind.
Possibly it may interest Englishmen--and women, too, for that matter--to know what a fighting laager is like, and as I have seen half a dozen of them from the enemies' side of the wall, a rough pen and ink sketch may not be amiss. In war time the Boer never, under any circumstances, makes his laager in the open country if there are any kopjes about. No matter how secure he may fancy himself from attack, no matter if there is not a foe within fifty miles of him, the Boer commander always pitches his laager in a place of safety between two parallel lines of hills, so that no attack can be made upon him, either front or rear, without giving him an immense advantage over the attacking force, even if the enemy is ten times as strong in numbers. By this means the Boers make their laagers almost impregnable. If they have a choice of ground, they pick a narrow ravine, or gully, with a line of hills front and rear, covered with small rocky boulders and bushes. They drive their waggons along the ravine, and make a sort of rude breastwork across the gully with the waggons. In between these waggons the women are placed for safety, for it is a noticeable fact that very large numbers of women have followed their husbands and fathers to the war, not to act as viragoes, not to play the wanton, not to unsex themselves, not to handle the rifle, but to nurse the wounded, to comfort the dying, and to lay out the dead. I have heard them singing round the camp fires in the starlight, but it was hymns that they sang, not ribald songs. I have seen them kneeling by the side of men in the moonlight, not in wantonness, but in mercy, and many a man who wears the British uniform to-day can bear me witness that I speak the truth.
The Boer never, if he can help it, allows himself to be separated from his horse; and these hardy little animals, mostly about fifteen hands high, and very lightly framed, are picketed close to the spot where the rider deposits his rifle and blankets. If they allow them to graze on the hillsides during the day, they run a rope through the halter near the horse's muzzle, and tie it close above the knee-joint of the near fore-leg. By this means the horse can graze in comfort, but cannot move away at any pace beyond a slow walk, and so are easily caught and saddled if required in a hurry. The oxen and sheep to be used for slaughtering purposes are driven up close to the camp; a waggon or two is drawn across the ravine above and below them, and they cannot then stampede if frightened by anything, unless they climb the rocky heights on either side of them, which they have small chance of doing, as the Kaffir herdsmen sleep on the hills above them. Having pitched his laager, the commander sends out his scouts; some amble off on horseback at a pace they call a "tripple"--a gait which all the Boers educate their nags to adopt. It is not exactly an amble, but a cousin to it, marvellously easy to the rider, whilst it enables the nag to get over a wonderful lot of ground without knocking up. It also allows the horse to pick his way amongst rocky ground, and so save his legs, where an English, Indian, or Australian horse would be apt to cripple himself in very short order. As soon as the mounted scouts set off on their journey, holding the reins carelessly in the left hand, their handy little Mauser rifles in their right, swaying carelessly in the saddle after the fashion of all bush-riders the world over, the foot scouts take up their positions amongst the rocks and shrubs on the hills in front and rear of the laager. Each scout has his rifle in his hand, his pipe in his teeth, his bandolier full of cartridges over his shoulder, and his scanty blanket under his left arm. No fear of his sleeping at his post. He is fighting for honour, not for pay; for home, not for glory; and he knows that on his acuteness the lives of all may depend. He knows that his comrades and the women trust him, and he values the trust as dearly as British soldier ever did. No matter how tired he may be, no matter how famished, the Boer sentinel is never faithless to his orders.
When the scouts are out the laager is fixed for the night--not a very exhaustive proceeding, as the Boers do not go in for luxuries of any kind. Here a tarpaulin is stretched over a kind of temporary ridge pole, blankets are tossed down on the hard earth, saddles are used for pillows, and the couch is complete. A little way farther down the line a rude canvas screen is thrown over the wheels of a waggon, and a family, or rather husband and wife, make themselves at home under the waggon; whilst the single men simply throw themselves at full length on the ground, wrap their one thin, small blanket round them, and smoke and jest merrily enough, whilst the Kaffirs light the fires and make the coffee. There is scarcely any timber in this part of Africa, and the fuel used is the dried manure of cattle pressed into slabs about fifteen inches long, eight inches wide, and three inches thick. The smoke from the fires is very dense, and soon fills the air with a pungent odour, which is not unpleasant in the open, but would be simply intolerable in a building. The coffee is soon made, and the simple meal begins; it consists of "rusks," a kind of bread baked until it becomes crisp and hard, and plenty of steaming hot coffee. I never saw any people so fond of this beverage as the Boers are. The Australian bushman and digger loves tea, and can almost exist upon it; but these Boers cling to coffee. They live, when out in laager, like Spartans, they dress anyhow, sleep anyhow, and eat just rusks and precious little else. Talk about "Tommy" and his hard times, why a private soldier at the front sleeps better, dresses better, and eats better than a Boer general; yet never once did I hear a Boer complain of hardships. After tea the Boers sit about and clean their rifles; the women move from one little group to another, chatting cheerfully, but I saw nothing in their conduct, or in the conduct of any man towards one of them, that would cause the most chaste matron in Great Britain to blush or droop her eyes. There is in the laager an utter absence of what we term soldierly discipline; men moved about, went and came in a free and easy fashion, just as I have seen them do a thousand times in diggers' camps. There was no saluting of officers, no stiffness, no starch anywhere. The general lounges about with hands in pockets and pipe in mouth; no one pays him any special deference. He talks to the men, the striplings, and the women, and they talk back to him in a manner which seems strange to a Britisher familiar to the ways of military camps. After the chatting, the pridikant, or parson, if there is one in the laager, raises his hands, and all listen with reverent faces whilst the man of God utters a few words in a solemn, earnest tone; then all kneel, and a prayer floats up towards the skies, and a few moments later the whole camp is wrapped in sleep, nothing is heard but the neighing of horses, the lowing of cattle, the bleating of sheep, and the occasional barking of a dog. There is no clatter of arms, no ringing of bugles, no deep-toned challenge of sentries, no footfall of changing pickets.
At regular intervals men rise silently from the ranks of the sleepers, pick up their rifles noiselessly, and silently, like ghosts, slip out into the deep shadows of the kopjes, and other men, equally silent, glide in from posts they have been guarding, and stretch themselves out to snatch slumber whilst they may. At dawn the men toss their blankets aside, and spring up ready dressed, and move amongst their horses; the Kaffirs attend to the morning meal, the everlasting rusks and coffee are served up, horses are saddled, cattle are yoked to waggons, and in the twinkling of an eye the camp is broken up, and the irregular army is on the march again, with scouts guarding every pass in front, scouts watching (themselves unseen) on every height. They travel fast, because they travel light; they use very little water, because they find it impossible to move it from place to place. Many critics charge them with habits of personal uncleanliness. It is true that in their laagers one does not see as much soap and water used as in our camps, but this is possibly due to want of opportunity as much as to want of inclination. In sanitary matters they are neglectful. I did not see a single latrine in any of their laagers, nor do I think they are in the habit of making them, and to this cause and to no other I attribute the large amount of fever in their ranks. They do not seem to understand the first principles of the laws of sanitation, and had this season been a wet, instead of a peculiarly dry one, I venture to assert that typhoid fever would have wrought far more havoc amongst them than our rifles.
I saw no literature in laager except Bibles. I witnessed no sports of any kind, and the only sport I heard them talk about was horse-racing. I saw no gambling, heard no blasphemy, noticed no quarrelling or bickering, and can only say, from my slight acquaintance with life in Boer laager in war time, that it may be rough, it may be irksome, it may not be so fastidiously clean as a feather-bed soldier might like it, but I have been in many tougher, rougher places, and never heard anyone cry about it.