In our rear lies the little village of Senekal, a shy little place, seemingly too modest to lift itself out of the miniature basin caused by the circumambient hills. Khaki-clad figures, gaunt, hungry, and dirty, patrol the streets; the few stores are almost denuded of things saleable, for friend and foe have swept through the place again and again, and both Boer and Briton have paid the shops a visit. At the hotel I managed to get a dinner of bread and dripping, washed down with a cup of coffee, guiltless of both milk and sugar. But, if the bill of fare was meagre, the bill of costs made up for it in its wealth of luxuriousness. If I rose from the table almost as hollow as when I sat down, I only had to look at the landlord's charges to fancy I had dined like one of the blood royal. Opposite the hotel stands the church, a dainty piece of architecture, fit for a more pretentious town than Senekal. It is fashioned out of white stone, and stands in its own grounds, looking calm and peaceful amidst all the bustle and blaze of war. Someone has turned all the seats out of the sacred edifice, preparatory to converting it into a hospital. The seats are not destroyed; they are not damaged; they are stacked away under a neighbouring verandah.
I do not think it wrong so to utilise a church. It is the only place fit to put the wounded men in in all the town. The great Nazarene in whose name the church was erected would not have allowed the sick to wither by the wayside in the days when the Judean hills rang to the echo of His magnetic voice, nor do I think it wrongful to His memory to convert His shrine into an abiding place for the sick and suffering.
Far away on our left flank the enemy hold the heights, and watch us moving outward, whilst between them and us, stretching mile after mile in a line with our column, ripples a line of scarlet flame, for the foe has fired the veldt to starve the transit mules, horses, and oxen. Like a sword unsheathed in the sunlight, the flames sparkle amidst the grass, which grows knee-deep right to the kopje's very lips. Birds rise on the wing with harsh, resonant cries, flutter awhile above their ravished homes, then wheel in mid-air and seek more peaceful pastures. Hares spring up before the crackling flames quite reach their forms, and, like grey streaks in a sailor's beard on a stormy day, flash suddenly into view, and as suddenly disappear again. Here and there a graceful springbok dashes through the smoke, with head thrown back and graceful limbs extended, his glossy, mottled hide looking doubly beautiful backed by that red streak of fire. The wind catches the quivering crimson streak, and for awhile the flames race, as I have seen wild horses, neck to neck, rush through the saltbush plains at the sound of the stockman's whip. Then, as the wind drops, the flames curl caressingly around the wealth of growing fodder, biting the grass low down, and wrapping it in a mantle of black and red, as flame and smoke commingle.
Here and there a pool of water, hidden from view until the fire fiend stripped the veldt land bare, leaps to life like a silver shield in the grim setting of the bare and blackened plain. Small mobs of cattle stand stupidly snuffing the smoke-laden air, until the breath of the blaze awakens them to a sense of peril; then, with horns lowered like bayonets at the charge, with tails stiff and straight behind them as levelled lances, they leap onward, over or through everything in front of them, bellowing frantically their brute beast protest against the red ruin of war. The flames roll on; they reach the stone walls of a cattle pen, and leap it as a hunter takes a brush fence in his stride; onward still, until a Kaffir kraal is reached. The soft-lipped billows kiss the uncouth mud wall, and for a moment transfigure them with a nameless beauty, the beauty that precedes ruin. Only a moment or two, and then the resistless destroyer flaunts its pennons amidst the reed-thatched roofs; the sparks leap up, the black smoke curls towards the sky, whilst on the neighbouring hills the negro women, with their babes in their arms, wail woefully, for those rude huts, with all their barbarous trappings, meant home--aye, home and happiness--to them. The flames roll onward now in two long lines, for the Kaffir encampment had sundered them, and now they look, with their beautifully rounded curves sweeping so gracefully out into the unknown, like the rich, ripe lips of a wanton woman in the pride of her shameless beauty. All that they leave behind is desolation, darkness, despair, ruin unutterable, only blackened walls, simmering carcases, weeping women, and wailing children.
Away on our right flank we can just make out the skeletons of what a few hours before had been a cluster of smiling farmhouses. They do not smile now; they grin horribly in the sunlight, grin as the fleshless skulls of dead men grin on a battlefield after those sextons of the veldt the grey-hooded, curved-beaked vultures have screamed their final farewell to the charnel-houses of war--noble war, splendid war, pastime of potentates and princes, invented in hell and patented in all the temples of sorrow.
As we look on those grim relics of this dreary time we catch the maddening sound of distant guns. The chargers prick their ears, and quiver from muzzle to coronet. The khaki-clad figures on the plain throw up their heads and turn their eyes towards the sound; the tired shoulders square themselves, each foot seems to tread the blackened plain with firmer, prouder tread. The sound of guns is like the rush of wine through sluggish veins, and men forget that they are faint with hunger, weary to the verge of wretchedness with ceaseless marching. The sound of guns bespeaks the presence of the foe, and those gaunt soldiers of the Queen are galvanised to life and lust of battle by the very breath of war. A ripple runs along the line, the farthest flanks catch the gleam of the sun on distant rifle barrels. An order rings out sharp and crisp; the column stands as if each man and horse were carved in rock.
The infantry lean lightly on their guns, the cavalry crane forward in their saddles. We pause and wait until we see the green badge of O'Driscoll's scouts on the hats of the advancing riders. O'Driscoll rides towards the staff with loosened rein, and every spur in all his gallant little troop shows how the scouts had ridden. We strain our ears to catch the news the Irish scout has brought. It comes at last Clements has met the foe, and death is busy in those distant hills.
Rundle sits silently, hard pressed in his saddle--a gallant figure, with soldier and leader written all over him. We wait his verdict anxiously, for on his word our fate may hinge. We have not long to wait--Clements can hold his own; Brabant will outflank the Boers. Forward, march! The men droop as wheat fields droop in the sultry air of a seething day. They are tired, deadly tired; not too tired to fight, but weary of the endless marching from point to point to keep the enemy from breaking through their lines and striking southward.
Away in front of us we note the snow-crowned hills which girdle Basutoland, snow crowned and sun kissed; every hilltop sparkling like a giant gem, and over all a pale blue sky, curtained by flimsy clouds of gauzy whiteness, through which the sun laughs rosily, the handiwork of the Eternal. And underfoot only the deep dead blackness of the blistered veldt, ravished of its wondrous wealth of living green, the rude, rough footprint of the god of war--sweet war; kind, Christian war!
Now, overhead, betwixt the smoking earth and smiling sky, flocks of vultures come and go, fluttering their great pinions noiselessly. To them the sound of guns is merriest music; it is their summons to the banquet board. Foul things they look as the float over us, silent as souls that have slipped from some ash heap in Hades, grey with the greyness that grows on the wolf's hide; their feathers hang upon them in ridges, unkempt, unlovely, soiled with blood and offal. They float above our heads, they wheel upon our flanks.
A horse drops wearily upon its knees, looks round dumbly on the wilderness of blackness, then turns its piteous eyes upward towards the skies that seem so full of laughing loveliness; then, with a sob which is almost human in the intensity of its pathos, the tired head falls downwards, the limbs contract with spasmodic pain, then stiffen into rigidity; and one wonders, if the Eternal mocked that silent appeal from those great sad eyes, eyes that had neither part nor lot in the sin and sorrow of war, how shall a man dare look upwards for help when the bitterness of death draws nigh unto him? The grey lines above, on flank, and front, and rear, were with greedy speed converging to one point, until they flock in a horrid, struggling, fighting, revolting mass of beaks and feathers above the fallen steed, as devils flock around the deathbed of a defaulting deacon. A soldier on the outer edge of the extended line swings his rifle with swift, backhanded motion over his shoulder, and brings the butt amidst the crowd of carrion. The vultures hop with grotesque, ungainly motions from their prey, and stand with wings extended and clawed feet apart, their necks outstretched and curved heads dripping slime and blood, a fitting setting amidst the black ruin of war. The charger now looks upward from eyeless sockets; his gutted carcass, flattened into a shapeless streak, shrinks towards the earth, as if asking to be veiled from the laughter of the skies. But there is neither pity from above nor shelter from below as the red wave of war, like the curse of the white Christ, sweeps over the land. God grant that merry England may never witness, on her own green meadow lands, these sights and sounds which meet the eye and ear on African soil.
Oh, England, England, if I had a voice whose clarion tones could reach your ears and stir your hearts in every city and town, village and hamlet, wayside cot and stately castle, in all your sea-encircled isle, I would cry to you to guard your coasts! Better, it seems to me, writing here, with all the evidences of war beneath my eyes, that every man born of woman's love on British soil should die between the decks, or find a grave in foundering ships of war, than that the foot of a foreign foe should touch the Motherland. Better that your ships be shambles, where men could die like men, sending Nelson's royal message all along the armoured line; better that our best and bravest found a grave where grey waves curl towards our coastline, than that our womanhood should look with woe-encircled eyes into the wolfish mouth of war. Better that our strong men perished, with the brine and ocean breezes playing freshly on the gaping wounds through which their souls passed outward, than that our little maids and tiny, tender babes should face the unutterable shame, the anguish, and the suffering of a war within our borders.
Do not laugh the very thought to scorn and brand the thing impossible, for fools have laughed before to-day whilst kingdoms tottered to their fall You who stay at home miss much that others know--and, knowing, dread. If England at this hour could only realise what manner of men control her destinies, then all the lion in the breed would spring to life again. I do not know if lack-brains of a similar strain control the supplies for England's Navy; but if, in time of war, it proves to be the case, then God help us, God help the old flag and the stout hearts who fight for it.
Lend me your ears, and let me tell you how our army in Africa is treated by the incompetent people in the good city of London. I pledge my word, as a man and a journalist, that every written word is true. I will add nothing, nor detract from, nor set down aught in malice. If my statements are proven false, then let me be scourged with the tongue and pen of scorn from every decent Briton's home and hearth for ever after, for he who lies about his country at such an hour as this is of all traitors the vilest. I will deal now particularly with the men who are acting under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Leslie Rundle. This good soldier and courteous gentleman has to hold a frontage line from Winburg, viâ Senekal, almost to the borders of Basutoland. His whole front, extending nearly a hundred miles, is constantly threatened by an active, dashing, determined enemy, an enemy who knows the country far better than an English fox-hunting squire knows the ground he hunts over season after season. To hold this vast line intact General Rundle has to march from point to point as his scouts warn him of the movements of the tireless foe. He has stationed portions of his forces at given points along this line, and his personal work is to march rapidly with small bodies of infantry, yeomanry, scouts, and artillery towards places immediately threatened. He has to keep the Boers from penetrating that long and flexible line, for if once they forced a passage in large numbers they would sweep like a torrent southwards, envelop his rear, cut the railway and telegraph to pieces, stop all convoys, paralyse the movements of all troops up beyond Kroonstad, and once more raise the whole of the Free State, and very possibly a great portion of the Cape Colony as well.
General Rundle's task is a colossal one, and any sane man would think that gigantic efforts would be made to keep him amply supplied with food for his soldiers. But such is not the case. The men are absolutely starving. Many of the infantrymen are so weak that they can barely stagger along under the weight of their soldierly equipment. They are worn to shadows, and move with weary, listless footsteps on the march. People high up in authority may deny this, but he who denies it sullies the truth. This is what the soldiers get to eat, what they have been getting to eat for a long time past, and what they are likely to get for a long time to come, unless England rouses herself, and bites to the bone in regard to the people who are responsible for it.
One pound of raw flour, which the soldiers have to cook after a hard day's march, is served out to each man every alternate day. The following day he gets one pound of biscuits. In this country there is no fuel excepting a little ox-dung, dried by the sun. If a soldier is lucky enough to pick up a little, he can go to the nearest water, of which there is plenty, mix his cake without yeast or baking-powder, and make some sort of a wretched mouthful. He gets one pound of raw fresh meat daily, which nine times out of ten he cannot cook, and there his supplies end.
What has become of the rations of rum, of sugar, of tea, of cocoa, of groceries generally? Ask at the snug little railway sidings where the goods are stacked--and forgotten. Ask in the big stores in Capetown and other seaport towns. Ask in your own country, where countless thousands of pounds' worth of foodstuffs lie rotting in the warehouses, bound up and tied down with red tape bandages. Ask--yes, ask; but don't stop at asking--damn somebody high up in power. Don't let some wretched underling be made the scapegoat of this criminal state of affairs, for the taint of this shameful thing rests upon you, upon every Briton whose homes, privileges, and prosperity are being safeguarded by these famishing men. The folk in authority will probably tell you that General Rundle and his splendid fellows are so isolated that food cannot be obtained for them. I say that is false, for recently I, in company with another correspondent, left General Rundle's camp without an escort. We made our way in the saddle, taking our two Cape carts with us, to Winburg railway station; leaving our horseflesh there, we took train for East London. Then back to the junction, and trained it down to Capetown, where we remained for forty-eight hours, and then made our way back to Winburg, and from Winburg we came without escort to rejoin General Rundle at Hammonia. If two innocent, incompetent (?) war correspondents could traverse that country and get through with winter supplies for themselves, why cannot the transport people manage to do the same? These transport people affect to look with contempt upon a war correspondent and his opinions on things military; but if we could not manage transport business better than they do, most of us would willingly stand up and allow ourselves to be shot. We are no burden upon the Army; we carry for ourselves, we buy for ourselves, and we look for news for ourselves; and we take our fair share of risks in the doing of our duty, as the long list of dead and disabled journalists will amply prove.
It is not, in my estimation, the whole duty of a war correspondent to go around the earth making friends for himself, or looking after his personal comfort, or booming himself for a seat in Parliament on a cheap patriotic ticket. It is rather his duty to give praise where praise is due, censure where censure has been earned, regardless of consequences to himself. Such was the motto of England's two greatest correspondents--Forbes and Steevens--both of whom have passed into the shadowland, and I would to God that either of them were here to-day, for England knew them well, and they would have roused your indignation as I, an unknown man, dare not hope to do. But though what I have written does not bear the magical name of Steevens or of Forbes, it bears the hallmark of the eternal truth. Our men on the fields of war are famishing whilst millions worth of food lies rotting on our wharves and in our cities, food that ought with ordinary management to be within easy reach of our fighting generals. Britain asks of Rundle the fulfilment of a task that would tax the energies and abilities of the first general in Europe; and with a stout heart he faces the work in front of him, faces it with men whose knees knock under them when they march, with hands that shake when they shoulder their rifles--shake, but not with fear; tremble, but not from wounds, but from weakness, from poverty of blood and muscle, brought about by continual hunger. Are those men fit to storm a kopje? Are they fit to tramp the whole night through to make a forced march to turn a position, and then fight as their fathers fought next day?
I tell you no. And yours be the shame if the Empire's flag be lowered--not theirs, but yours; for you--what do you do? You stand in your music-halls and shout the chorus of songs full of pride for your soldier, full of praise for his patience, his pluck, and his devotion to duty; and you let him go hungry, so hungry that I have often seen him quarrel with a nigger for a handful of raw mealies on the march. It is so cheap to sing, especially when your bellies are full of good eating; it costs nothing to open your mouths and bawl praises. It is pleasant to swagger and brag of "your fellows at the front;" but why don't you see that they are fed, if you want them to fight? Give "Tommy" a lot less music and flapdoodle, and a lot more food of good quality, and he'll think a heap more of you. It is nice of you to stay in Britain and drink "Tommy's" health, but there would be far more sense in the whole outfit if you would allow him to "eat his own" out here.