I had a good many opportunities of chatting with Boers during the time which elapsed between my capture and liberation, and had a long talk with the President of the Orange Free State, Mr. Steyn; also with several of his ministerial colleagues. Their ministers of religion, whom they call pridikants, also chatted to me freely, as occasion offered. I had more than one interview with their fighting generals. Medical men in their service I found very much akin to medical men the world over. They patched up the wounded and asked no questions concerning nationality, just as our own medicos do. Personally, I must say that I found the Boers first-class subjects for Press interviews. They did not know much about journalists and the ways of journalism. Possibly had they had more experience in regard to "interviews," I should not have found them quite so easy to manage, but it never seemed to enter their heads that a man might make good "copy" out of a quiet chat over pipes and tobacco. One of their stock subjects of conversation was their great General, the man of Magersfontein--General Cronje.
"What do you Britishers and Australians think of Cronje?" was a stock question with them. "Do you think him a good fighter?"
"Well, yes, unquestionably he is a good fighting man."
"Do you think him as good as Lord Roberts?"
"No. We men of British blood don't think there are many men on earth as good as the hero of Candahar."
"Do you think him as good a man as Lord Kitchener?"
"No. Very many of us consider the conqueror of the Soudan to be one who, if he lives, will make as great a mark in history as Wellington."
At this a joyous smile would illuminate the face of the Boer. He would reply, "Yes, yes; Roberts is a great man, a very great man indeed. So is Kitchener, so is General French, so is General Macdonald, so is General Methuen. Yet all those five men are attempting to get Cronje into a corner where they can capture him. They have ten times as many soldiers as Cronje has, ten times as many guns; therefore, what a really great man Cronje must be on your own showing."
That was before the fatal 27th of February on which Cronje surrendered.
I often asked them how they, representing a couple of small States, came to get hold of the idea that they could whip a colossal Power like Great Britain in a life or death struggle; and almost invariably they informed me that they had expected that one of the great European Powers would take an active part in the struggle on their behalf, and, furthermore, they had been taught to think that Britain's Empire was rotten to the core, so much so that as soon as war commenced in earnest all her colonies would fall away from her and hoist the flag of independence, and that India would leap once again into open and bloody mutiny. They expressed themselves as being dumbfounded when they heard that Australian troops were rallying under the Union Jack, and seemed to feel most bitterly that the men from the land of the Southern Cross were in arms against them. "We fell out with England, and we thought we had to fight England. Instead we find we have to fight people from all parts of the world, Colonials like ourselves. Surely Australia and Canada might have kept out of this fight, and allowed us to battle it out with the country we had a quarrel with."
"The Canadians and Australians are of British blood."
"Well, what if they are? Ain't plenty of the Cape Volunteers who are fighting under President Kruger's banner born of Dutch parents? Yet, because they fight against Englishmen, you call them all rebels, and talk of punishing them when the war is over, if you win, just because they lived on your side of the border and not on ours. Would you ask one Boer to fight against another Boer simply because he lived on one side of a river and his blood relation lived on the other? You Britishers brag of your pride of blood, and draw your fighting stock from all parts of the world in war time, but you have no generosity; you won't allow other people to be proud of their blood too."
I tried to persuade them that I did not for one moment think that Britain would be vindictive towards so-called rebels in the hour of victory, and pointed out that, in my small opinion, such a course would be foreign to the traditions of the Motherland; and was often met with the retort that if England did so the shame would be hers, not theirs. Many a time I was told to remember the Jameson raid and the manner in which the Boers treated not only the leaders of that band of adventurers, but the men also. "Look here," said one old fighting man to me, as he leant with negligent grace on his rifle, "I was one of those who helped to corner Jameson and his men, and I can tell you that we Boers knew very well that we would have been acting within our rights if we had shot Jameson and every man he had with him, because his was not an act of war--it was an act of piracy; and had we done so, and England had attempted to avenge the deed, half the civilised world would have ranged themselves on our side; but we did not seek those men's blood; we gave them quarter as soon as they asked for it, and after that, though we knew very well they had done all that men could do to involve us in a war of extermination with a great nation, we sent their leader home to his own country to be tried by his own countrymen, and the rank and file we forgave freely. We may be a nation of white savages, but our past does not prove it, and if Britain wins in the war now going on she will have to be very generous indeed before we will need to blush for our conduct."
"Why should not the white population of South Africa be ready to live under the protection of Britain? The yoke cannot be so heavy when men of all creeds, colours, and nationalities who have lived under that rule for years are now ready to volunteer to fight for her, even against you, who have admittedly done them no direct wrong?"
"Why should we live under any flag but our own?" replied the old fighting man passionately. "We came here and found the country a wilderness in the hands of savages; we fought our way into the land step by step, holding our own with our rifles; we had to live lives of fearful hardships, facing wild beasts and wilder men; we won with the strong hand the land we live in. Why should we bow our necks to Britain's yoke, even if it be a yoke of silk?" And as he spoke a murmur of deep and earnest sympathy ran through the ranks of the Boers who were standing around him.
"You, of course, blame all the Colonials, Australians and others, for coming to fight against you?" I asked. "I don't know that I do, or that my people do, in a sense," the veteran replied. "It all depends upon the spirit which animated them. If your Australians, who are of British blood, came here to fight for your Motherland, believing that her cause was a just and a holy one, and that she needed your aid, you did right, for a son will help his mother, if he be a son worth having; but if the Australians came here merely for the sake of adventure, merely for sport, as men come in time of peace to shoot buck on the veldt, then woe to that land, for though God may make no sign to-day nor to-morrow, yet, in His own time, He will surely wring from Australia a full recompense in sweat and blood and tears; for whether we be right or wrong, our God knows that we are giving our lives freely for what we in our hearts believe to be a holy cause."
"What do you fellows think of Australians as fighters?"
I asked the question carelessly, but the answer that I got brought me to my bearings quickly, for then I learnt that more than one gallant Australian officer dear to me had fallen, never to rise again, since I had been taken prisoner. The man who spoke was little more than a lad, a pale-faced, slenderly built son of the veldt. He had tangled curly hair, and big, pathetic blue eyes, soft as a girl's, and limbs that lacked the rugged strength of the old Boer stock; but there was that nameless "something," that indefinable expression in his face which warranted him a brave man. He carried one arm in a sling, and the bandage round his neck hid a bullet wound. "The Australians can fight," he said simply. "They wounded me, and--they killed my father." Perhaps it was the wind sighing through the hospital trees that made the Boer lad's voice grow strangely husky; possibly the same cause filled the blue eyes with unshed tears.
"It was in fair fight, lad," I said gently; "it was the fortune of war."
"Yes," he murmured, "it was in fair fight, an awful fight--I hope I'll never look upon another like it. Damn the fighting," he broke out fiercely. "Damn the fighting. I didn't hate your Australians. I didn't want to kill any of them. My father had no ill-will to them, nor they to him, yet he is out there--out there between two great kopjes--where the wind always blows cold and dreary at night-time." The laddie shuddered. "It makes a man doubt the love of the Christ," he said. "My father was a good man, a kind man, who never turned the stranger empty-handed from his door, even the Kaffirs on the farm loved him; and now he is lying where no one can weep over his grave. We piled great rocks on his grave. My cousin and I buried him. We had no shovels; we scooped a hole in the hard earth as well as we could, a long, shallow hole, and we laid him in it. I took his head and Cousin Gustave carried his feet. We folded his hands on his breast, laid his old rifle by his side, because he had always loved that gun, and never used any other when out hunting. Then we pushed the earth in on him gently with our hands, breaking the hard lumps up and crumbling them in our palms, so that they should not bruise his poor flesh. He had always been so kind, we could not hurt him, even though we knew he was dead, for he had been gentle to all of us in life; even the cows and the oxen at home loved him--and now who will go back and tell mother and little Yacoba that he is dead, that he will come to them no more? Oh, damn the war," the lad called again in his pain. "I don't know--only God knows--which side is right or wrong, but I do know that the curse of the Christ will rest on the heads of those who have made this war for ambition's sake or the greed of gold, and the good God will not let the widow and the orphan child go unavenged; blood will yet speak for blood, and it must rest either on the heads of Kruger and Steyn, or Chamberlain and Rhodes."
"Tell me, comrade, of the Australians who fell. They were my countrymen."
"It was a cruel fight," he said. "We had ambushed a lot of the British troops--the Worcesters, I think, they called them. They could neither advance nor retire; we had penned them in like sheep, and our field cornet, Van Leyden, was beseeching them to throw down their rifles to save being slaughtered, for they had no chance. Just then we saw about a hundred Australians come bounding over the rocks in the gully behind us. There were two great big men in front cheering them on. We turned and gave them a volley, but it did not stop them. They rushed over everything, firing as they came, not wildly, but as men who know the use of a rifle, with the quick, sharp, upward jerk to the shoulder, the rapid sight, and then the shot. They knocked over a lot of our men, but we had a splendid position. They had to expose themselves to get to us, and we shot them as they came at us. They were rushing to the rescue of the English. It was splendid, but it was madness. On they came, and we lay behind the boulders, and our rifles snapped and snapped again at pistol range, but we did not stop those wild men until they charged right into a little basin which was fringed around all its edges by rocks covered with bushes. Our men lay there as thick as locusts, and the Australians were fairly trapped. They were far worse off than the Worcesters, up high in the ravine.
"Our field cornet gave the order to cease firing, and called on them to throw down their rifles or die. Then one of the big officers--a, great, rough-looking man, with a voice like a bull--roared out, 'Forward Australia!--no surrender!' Those were the last words he ever uttered, for a man on my right put a bullet clean between his eyes, and he fell forward dead. We found later that his name was Major Eddy, of the Victorian Rifles. He was as brave as a lion, but a Mauser bullet will stop the bravest. His men dashed at the rocks like wolves; it was awful to see them. They smashed at our heads with clubbed rifles, or thrust their rifles up against us through the rocks and fired. One after another their leaders fell. The second big man went down early, but he was not killed. He was shot through the groin, but not dangerously. His name was Captain McInnerny. There was another one, a little man named Lieutenant Roberts; he was shot through the heart. Some of the others I forget. The men would not throw down their rifles; they fought like furies. One man I saw climb right on to the rocky ledge where Big Jan Albrecht was stationed. Just as he got there a bullet took him, and he staggered and dropped his rifle. Big Jan jumped forward to catch him before he toppled over the ledge, but the Australian struck Jan in the mouth with his clenched fist, and fell over into the ravine below and was killed.
"We killed and wounded an awful lot of them, but some got away; they fought their way out. I saw a long row of their dead and wounded laid out on the slope of a farmhouse that evening--they were all young men, fine big fellows. I could have cried to look at them lying so cold and still. They had been so brave in the morning, so strong; but in the evening, a few little hours, they were dead, and we had not hated them, nor they us. Yes, I could have cried as I thought of the women who would wait for them in Australia. Yes, I could have shed tears, though they had wounded me, but then I thought of my father, and of the mother, and little Yacoba on the farm, who would wait in vain for him, and then I could feel sorry for those, the wives and children of the dead men, no longer."