Since the Boers bolted from Constantia Farm we have done but little beyond following them from spot to spot through the Free State, in the conquered territory along the Basuto border. At Constantia Farm they gave us a gunnery duel, which, though incessant and continuous, did little real damage to either side. After that, when General French joined issue with us, the Boers shifted their ground with consummate skill. We moved on to Dewetsdorp, and there the Third Division, under Chermside, parted company with us. We moved onward to Thaba Nchu, Brabant keeping well away towards the Basuto border with his flying column. At Thaba Nchu it looked day by day as if we were in for something hot and hard, the Boers having, as usual, taken up a position of vast natural strength. But Hamilton was the only one to get to close quarters with the veldt warriors, when executing a flanking movement. I have since learned that the enemy suffered very severely on that occasion.
They can give some of the British journalists a wholesome lesson in regard to manliness of spirit, these same rough fellows, bred in the African wilds. Speaking to me of the charge the Gordons made, when led by Captain Towse, they were unstinted in their praises. "It was grand, it was terrible," they said, "to see that little handful of men rush on fearless of death, fearless of everything." It was bravery of the highest kind, and they admired it, as only brave men do admire courage in a foeman. The people of Britain who read extracts taken from Boer newspapers, extracts which ridicule British pluck and all things British, must not blame the Boers for those statements. In nearly every case the papers published inside Burgher territory are edited by renegade Britons, and it is these renegades, not the fighting Boers, who defame our nation, and take every possible opportunity of hitting below the belt.
When we left Thaba Nchu, General French left us, as did also Hamilton and Smith-Dorien. Brabant hugged the Basuto border, and swept the land clean of everything hostile. General Rundle (the flower of courtesy and chivalry) kept the centre; General Boyes looked after our left wing; General Campbell picked up the intermediate spaces as occasion demanded; and so we moved on, trying, but trying in vain, to draw a cordon round the ever-shifting foe. There was no chance for a dashing forward move; the country through which we passed was lined by kopjes, which were simply appalling in their native strength. What prompted the Boer leaders to fall back from them, step by step, will for ever remain a mystery to me. It was not want of provisions, for we knew that they had huge supplies of beef and mutton, whilst there were in their possession almost inexhaustible stores of grain. It was not want of fodder for their horses, for the valleys and veldt were covered with beautiful grass, almost knee-deep. Water was plentiful in all directions, and they apparently possessed plenty of ammunition. Prisoners assert that Commandant Olivier was absolutely furious when compelled to fall back, by order of his superiors. It is also asserted that he is now in dire disgrace on account of his refusal to obey promptly some of his superior's commands. It is further stated that he is to be deposed from his command, and will cease to be a factor of any importance in the war. It is hard to fathom Boer tactics. It does not follow because a line of kopjes are abandoned to-day that the burghers have retreated; they fall back before scouting parties; their pickets watch our scouts return to camp, knowing that they will convey the news to headquarters that the kopjes are empty of armed men. Then, with almost incredible swiftness, the light-armed Boers swarm back by passes known only to themselves, and secretly and silently take up positions where they can butcher an advancing army. If General Rundle had been a rash, impetuous, or a headstrong man, he could comfortably have lost his whole force on half a dozen occasions; but he is not. He is essentially a cautious leader, and pits his brain against that of the Boer leaders as a good chess player pits his against an opponent. He may believe in the luck of the British Army, but he trusts mighty little to it. Better lose a couple of days than a couple of regiments is his motto, and a wise motto it is. Had he flung his men haphazard at any of the positions where the Boers have made a stand, he would have been cut to pieces.
Rundle plays a wise game. When the enemy looks like sitting tight, Rundle at once commences a series of manoeuvres directed from his centre. This keeps the enemy busy, and gives them a lot of solid thinking to do, and whilst they are thinking he moves his flanks forward, overlapping them in the hope of surrounding them. The Boer hates to have his rear threatened, and invariably falls away. His method of falling back is unique. As soon as he smells danger, all the live stock is sent off and all the waggons. Cape carts are kept handy for baggage that cannot be sent with the heavy convoy. Most of the big guns go with the first flight; one or two, which can easily be shifted, are kept to hold back our advance, and the deadly little pom-poms are dodged about from kopje to kopje. The pom-pom is not much to look at, but it is a weapon to be reckoned with in mountain warfare. It throws only a one-pound shell, and throws it from the most impossible places imaginable. The beauty of the pom-pom is that it drops its work in from spots from which no sane man ever expects a shell to come.
When the Boer finds that his position is untenable on account of a flanking move, the horses are hitched up to the light Cape carts, the loading is packed, and off they fly at a gallop, and the guns follow suit; whilst the rifles hold the heights. That is why we so seldom get hold of anything worth having when we do take a position. Our losses have been paltry, because the Boer is a defensive, not an offensive, fighter. He waits to be attacked, he does not often attack; and our general is a man who does not throw men's lives away. He believes in brains before bayonets, and England may be thankful for the possession of General Rundle. Had he been a madcap general, there would have been a few thousand more widows in the old country to-day than there are. At the same time, he is a man of immense personality. Should he ever get a chance to engage the enemy in a pitched battle, he will prove to the world that he is capable of great things. There will be no half-hearted work in such an hour. If he has to sacrifice men on the altar of war, he will surely sacrifice them, but not until he is compelled to do so. Brabant is a wild daredevil, who rushes on like a mountain torrent Boyes is brainy; careful, and yet dashing.
I want to state here that I have never lost a single opportunity, whilst travelling through the enemy's country, of looking at the "home" life of the people--and I may say that I have been in a few back-country homes in America, in Australia, and in other parts of the world--and I want to place it on record that in my opinion the Boer farmer is as clean in his home life, as loving in his domestic arrangements, as pure in his morals, as any class of people I have ever met. Filth may abound, but I have seen nothing of it. Immorality may be the common everyday occurrence I have seen it depicted in some British journals, but I have failed to find trace of it. Ignorance as black as the inside of a dog may be the prevailing state of affairs; if so, I have been one of the lucky few who have found just the reverse in whichsoever direction I have turned. After six months', or nearly six months', close and careful observation of their habits, I have arrived at the conclusion that the Boer farmer, and his son and daughter, will compare very favourably with the farming folk of Australia, America, and Great Britain. What he may be in the Transvaal I know not, because I have not yet been there; but in Cape Colony and in the Free State he is much as I have depicted him, no better, no worse, than Americans and Australians, and as good a fighting man as either--which is tantamount to saying that he is as good as anything on God's green earth, if he only had military training.
Ask "Tommy" privately, when he comes home, if this is not so--not "Thomas," who has been on lines of communication all the time--but "Tommy," who has fought him, and measured heart and hand with him. I think he will tell you much as I have told you. For "Tommy" is no fool; he is not half such a braggart, either, as some of the Jingoes, who shout and yell, but never take a hand in the real fighting; those wastrels of England, who are at home with a pewter of beer in their hands--hands that never did, and never will, grip a rifle.
Whilst at Trummel I took advantage of a couple of days' camping to go out three miles from camp to have a look at a diamond mine. I found a red-whiskered Dutchman in charge, who knew less English than I knew Dutch, and as my Dutch consists of about twelve words we did not do much in the conversational line; but I made him understand by pantomimic telegraphy that I wanted to have a look round, to size up things. He took me to a "dump," where the ore at grass was stored, and converted himself into a human stone-cracking machine for my benefit, until I had seen all that I wanted to see in regard to the "ore at grass." He was very much like mine managers the world over--very ready to play tricks on anyone he considered "green" at the business. It was not his fault that he did not know that I had been a reporter on gold, silver, copper, lead, tin, and coal mines for about twenty years.
Thinking, doubtless, that I was like unto the ordinary city fellow who comes at rare intervals to look at a mine, he made me a present of a piece of rock with some worthless garnets in it, also a sample of country rock pregnant with mundic; the garnets and the mundic glittered in the sunshine. I rose to the bait, as I was expected to do, and intimated that I would like a lot of it. This delighted the Dutchman, and he beamed all over his expansive face, all the time cursing me for the second son of an idiot, as is the way with mine managers. But he stopped grinning before the afternoon wore out, for I set him climbing and clambering for little pieces of mundic and tiny patches of garnets in all the toughest places I could find in that mine, and went into ecstasies over each individual piece, until I had quite a load of the rubbish. Then I intimated gently that I would be back that way when the war was over, and would surely send my Cape cart for them if he would be good enough to mind them for me. I fancy an inkling of the truth dawned in that Dutchman's soul at last, for he made no further reference to either garnets or mundic. I satisfied myself with a sample of the matrix in which diamonds are found, and also with a specimen of the country rock for geological reference, but the garnets are on the heap still.
The mine, which is named the "Monastery," is very crudely worked; everything connected with it is primitive. A huge quarry, about 600 feet in circumference, and about 40 feet deep, had been opened up. There was nothing in it in the shape of lode or reef, but a large number of disconnected "stringers," or leaders of rocky matter, in which diamonds are often found. At the bottom of the quarry the water lay fully eight feet deep, owing to the fact that the mine had lain unworked during the war. A vertical shaft had been sunk a little distance from the quarry to a depth of 150 feet, but there was a hundred feet of water in it, so that I am unable to say anything concerning the Monastery diamond mine at its lower levels. One or two tunnels had been drawn from the quarry into the adjoining country on small leaders, and from what I could gather from my guide diamonds had been discovered. Whilst I went below, I left my Kaffir boy on top to pick up what he could in the shape of rumour or gossip from the natives, and he informed me that the niggers had been the cause of the opening of the mine, they having found diamonds near the surface in some of the leaders, which consisted of a rock known in Australian mining circles as illegitimate granite. The white folk, fearing that the poor heathen might become debauched if they possessed too much wealth, had gathered those diamonds in--when they could--and later had started mining for the precious gems, with what success the heathen did not know. I tried the Dutchman on the same point, but I might as well have interviewed an oyster in regard to the science of gastronomy. He dodged around my question like a fox terrier round a fence, until I gave him up in despair. But, for all that, I rather fancy they have found diamonds round that way, only they don't want the British to know anything about it.