At last the blow has fallen which has shattered the Boer cause in the Free State. There will be skirmishes with scattered bands in the mountain gorges beyond Harrismith, but the backbone of the Republic has been broken beyond redemption. Sunday, the 30th of July, was big with fate, though we who sat almost within the shadow of the snow enshrouded hills of savage Basutoland at the dawning of that day knew it not. It was a joyful day for us, though pregnant with sorrow for the veldtsmen who had fought so long and well for their doomed cause, for on that day our generals reaped the harvest which they had sown with infinite patience and undaunted courage. General Hunter, to whom the chief command had just been given, was there, surrounded by his staff, a soldierly figure worthy of a nation's trust; Clements, keen faced, sharp voiced, with alertness written in each lineament; Paget, whose fiery spirit spoke from his mobile face, his blood, hot as an Afghan sun, flashing the workings of his mind into his face as sunlight flashes from steel; and Rundle, hawk-eyed and stern, no friend to Pressmen, but a soldier every inch, one of those men whose hands build empires. Had he been stripped of modern gear that day, and placed in Roman trappings, one would have looked behind him to see if Cæsar meant to grace the show; but Cæsar was not there.
One of the greatest soldiers since the world began was missing from our ranks, the hero Roberts, whose great intellect had planned the coup which his generals had carried to maturity. Yet, though Lord Roberts planned each general move, an immense amount of actual work was left to the generals. The country they had to pass through was rugged and inhospitable. The foe they had to fight was brave, resourceful, and well supplied with all munitions of war; a single mistake on the part of any one of them would have wrecked the magnificent plan of the Commander-in-Chief. But no mistakes were made; each general worked as if his soul's salvation depended upon his individual efforts. Where all are good, as a rule it is hard to make a distinction; but in this instance one man stands out above his fellows, and that man is General Sir Leslie Rundle, the commander of the Eighth Division. His task from the first was herculean. He had to hold a line fully one hundred miles in length; day after day, week after week, the enemy tried to break that line and pour their forces into the territory we had conquered. Had they succeeded, they would have shaken the whole of South Africa to its very centre. This task kept Sir Leslie Rundle busy night and day. Wherever he camped, spies dogged his footsteps; black men and white men constantly upon his track. His every move was rapidly reported to our ever-watchful enemies. But, quick as the enemy undoubtedly were in all their movements, General Rundle nullified their efforts by his rapidity. So terribly hard did he work his men that they nicknamed him "Rundle, the Tramp." How the men stood it I cannot understand. I know of no other men in all the world who would have gone on as they did, obeying orders without a murmur or a whimper. They were savage at times over the food they got, and small blame to them, but they never blamed their general. They knew that he gave them plenty of the class of food that he could lay hands upon. Had the general's supplies been in this part of the country, instead of being tied up in red-tape packages on the railway line, General Rundle would have kept his Division fully supplied. The only food which he could command, beef and mutton, he gave without stint. Had the War Office authorities attended to their end of the work with the same commendable zeal, half the hardships of the campaign would have been averted.
If ever war was reduced to an absolute science, it was upon this occasion. On the one hand, some six thousand Boers on the defensive, armed with the handiest quick-firing rifle known to modern times, with from eight to ten guns, well supplied with food and ammunition, and backed by some of the most awful country the eye of man ever rested upon--a country which they knew as a child knows its mother's face. On the other hand, an attacking force of 30,000 men and guns. To read the number of the opposing forces one would think the Boer task the effort of madmen, bent upon national extinction; but one glance at the country would upset those calculations entirely. Every kopje was a natural fortress, every sluit a perfect line of trenches, and every donga a nursery for death.
To attempt to go into every move made by our troops during the months of May, June, and the early parts of July would only prove wearisome to the average reader; suffice it to say that finally we got the burgher forces into the Caledon Valley. This valley is about twenty-eight miles in length, and from fourteen to fifteen miles across its widest part. Properly speaking, it was not a valley at all, but a series of valleys interspersed by great kopjes, nearly all of which presented an almost impregnable appearance. The valley had a number of outlets, which the Boers fondly believed our people to be unacquainted with. These outlets were known as "neks," and were, without exception, terribly rough places for a hostile force to attack. Commando Nek was upon the south-east, facing towards Basutoland. This was merely a narrow pass, running up over a jagged kopje, with two greater kopjes on each side of it. The hills all round it were so placed that a number of good marksmen, hidden in the rocks, could easily sweep off thousands of an enemy who attempted to take it by storm. But that pass had to be taken before we could claim to hold the Free State in the hollow of our hand. Slabbert's Nek was merely a huge gash in the face of a cliff. It was the Boers' causeway towards the north, their highway to safety. Retief's Nek lay to the westward, and formed a grinning death trap for any general who might try the foolish hazard of a single-handed attack Naauwpoort Nek, ugly and uninviting, faced south-east towards Harrismith. Golden Gate, named by a satirist--or a satyr--was merely a narrow chasm worn by wind and weather through the girdle of mountains. It looked towards the east, and was a mere pathway, which none but desperate soldiers, driven to their last extremity, would think of using.
The Boers never dreamed that it was possible for our troops to move with such machine-like precision as to hold every nek at our mercy. But whilst Rundle held the ground to the south, and kept the Boers for ever on the move by his restless activity, Clements and Paget moved on Slabbert's Nek, Hunter swept down on Retief's Nek, Naauwpoort Nek was invested by Hector Macdonald, Bruce Hamilton closed in upon Golden Gate, and the great net was almost perfect in its meshes. The enemy did not realise their danger until it was too late for the great bulk of their force to escape. Commandant De Wet saw the impending peril at the eleventh hour, and tried hard to get his countrymen to follow him in a dash through Slabbert's Nek; but very few of the burghers would believe that the sword of fate was hanging by so slim a thread over their heads. In vain this able soldier of the Republic harangued them. Vain all his threats and protestations. They could not and would not believe him. Sullenly they sat in their strongholds and watched Rundle--they could see him, and that danger which was present to their eyes was the only danger they would believe in; and day by day, hour by hour, the cordon of Britain's might drew closer and closer, until every link in the vast chain was practically flawless. Then Commandant De Wet gathered around him about 1,800 of his most devoted followers, and with Ex-President Steyn in their ranks they passed like ghosts of a fallen people through Slabbert's Nek on towards the Transvaal. How they managed to elude the incoming khaki wave some other pen must tell. It was a splendid piece of work on the Republican Commandant's part, and history will not begrudge him the full measure of praise due to him. Had General Prinsloo and his burghers been guided by him, these pages had never been written, for where De Wet took his 1,800 burghers he could as easily have taken 6,000.
Scarcely had De Wet made his escape ere the truth was borne in upon the burghers with an iron hand that their doom was sealed. General Rundle's force, which all along had been essentially a blocking force, and not a striking force, made a move on the 23rd of July. All day the cannons spoke to the burghers from Willow Grange, all day long the rifles rippled their leaden waves of death. We could see but little of the enemy; they lay concealed behind the loose rocks, and our men had little else to do but lift their rifles and pull the trigger, trusting to the powers that rule the destinies of war to speed the bullets to some foeman's resting place. But we knew they were there if we could not see them, for the snap and snarl of the Mauser rifles came readily to our ears, and the booming of their guns answered ours, as hound answers hound when the scent grows hottest. We pounded them with shrapnel and pelted them with common shell until the air around them rained iron. Our guns were six to one, yet those brave veldtsmen held their own with a stubborn courage worthy of the noblest traditions in all the red pages of war. They gave us a parting shot at sundown, and at night, when the thick mists from the snow-draped mountains behind us came down upon the land and added to the darkness of the winter's night, they moved their gun and fell back with it to a place where they could renew the battle on the morrow. And at the dawning they testified their vitality by dropping a couple of shells right into the midst of the Imperial Yeomanry camp.
Whilst we were busy at Julies Kraal, drawing the Boers' attention from other points, feinting as if we intended to push right on into Commando Nek, General Sir Archibald Hunter made a dash at Relief's Nek with his force, and our cannon were busy at almost every point around the valley where the Boers were stationed. General Prinsloo, who was in supreme command of the enemy's forces, had no means of knowing where the British really meant to strike. In vain he pushed men to anticipate Rundle's threatened move, vainly he turned like a trapped tiger towards Hunter's marching men. Turn where he would, the khaki wave met him, rolling resistlessly inward and onward. Hunter broke through with small loss, for the force which should have checked him at Retief's Nek was waiting at Commando Nek for Rundle and the Eighth Division. It was a master stroke, for when once Hunter was upon the inside of the valley he was in a position to threaten the rear of the Boer forces at Commando Nek, and that was a state of affairs which the enemy could not stand upon any terms. A number of them, under clever Commandant Olivier, slipped away through Golden Gate. They did not face the more open country even inside the big valley, but made their way through a piece of ground known as Witzies Hoek, and thence through a ravine which almost beggars description. Later on I went with Driscoll's Scouts in search of the tracks of these men, and followed along the same road they had taken. The ravine was a long, narrow gap between mountain ranges of immense height. The sides of the mountains were covered with loose boulders, sufficient to protect the whole Boer army from our artillery fire. The only track which a horseman could possibly follow wound in and out alongside the face of the cliffs, so narrow that even the horses bred in the country found it difficult to keep their feet upon it, and could only proceed, at funeral pace, in single file. A handful of men could have held that place against an army. With De Wet and Olivier gone, half our task was over. The Boers made a blind rush, first to one nek, then to the next, only to find that Britain's sons guarded them all. Small bodies of men might escape, but the vast supplies of mealies, waggons, guns, and all the cumbrous appliances of war, without which an army is useless, were penned in. The hand of the Field-Marshal was on them. The blocking forces held the neks, and now those forces which had to strike were ordered to move. No sooner did General Rundle receive his orders to advance than he rolled forward with the impetuosity of a storm breaking upon a southern coast. They on the spot knew that all the enemy's hopes lay centred round a town in the middle of the valley. This town was Fouriesburg. The general who could strike that town first would deal the death blow to the Boer forces in the Free State. Rundle was furthest from the town; the pathway his troops would have to pursue was rougher and more rugged than that which lay open to the rest of the forces.
But Rundle knew his men; he knew their mettle; he had tried them with long, weary marching, and he knew that they were worthy of his trust. He gave his orders. The Leinsters and the Scots Guards, tall, gaunt, hunger-stricken warriors, whose ribs could be counted through their ragged khaki coats, swung out as cheerily as if they had never known the absence of a meal or the fatigue of a dreary march. The Irishmen chaffed the Scots, and the Scots yelled badinage back to the sons of Erin, and onward they went, onward and upward, over the rock-strewn ground, through the narrow passes, fixing their bayonets where the ground looked likely to hold a hidden foe, ready at a moment's notice to charge into the blackness that lay engulfed in those dreary passes. But the enemy did not wait for them. As the Eighth Division advanced, making the rocky headlands ring with the rhythm of their martial tread, the Boers fell back like driven deer, and the bugle spoke to the Scottish bagpipe until the silent hills gave tongue, and echo answered echo until the wearied ear sickened for silence. Onward we swept, until Commando Nek lay like a grinning gash in the face of nature far in our rear. When we did halt the men threw themselves down on the freezing earth, and wolfed a biscuit; then, stretching themselves face downwards on the grass, they slept with their rifles ready to their hands, their greatcoats around them, and above only the stars, that seemed to freeze in the boundless billows of eternal blue. Onward again, before the silver sentinels above us had faded before the blushing face of the dawning. With faces begrimed with dirt, with feet blistered by contact with flinty boulders, with tattered garments flapping around them like feathers on wounded waterfowl, officers and men faced the unknown, as their fathers faced it before them. Meanwhile Hunter was pressing towards Fouriesburg from Relief's Nek, his scouts--the well-known "Tigers," under Major Remington--well in advance of his main column.
Rundle gave an order to Driscoll, Captain of the Scouts, who had done such good service to the Eighth Division. What passed between the general and the Irish captain no man knows, probably no man will ever know. But when Driscoll rode up at the mad gallop so characteristic of the man there was that in his hard, ugly, wind-tanned face which spoke of stern deeds to be done. He did not ride alone, this Irish-Indian Volunteer captain--Rundle's own aide, Lord Kensington, of the 15th Hussars, was on his right hand, and on his left Lieutenant Roger Tempest, of the Scots Guards, for a squad of the Scots Guards who had been learning scouting under Driscoll were to accompany Driscoll's Scouts. That little group was characteristic of the future of the British Empire. Two aristocrats riding shoulder to shoulder with a wild dare-devil, whose rifle had cracked over half the earth. England, Ireland, and Scotland rode alone in front of the adventurous band that day. It was a reckless ride; the captain, on his grey stallion, half a length in front. They darted through gullies, drew rein and unslung rifles up hill, now standing in the stirrups to ease their cattle, now sitting tight in the saddle to drive them over the open veldt, taking every chance that a dare-devil crew could take, pausing for nothing, staying for nothing. Right into the town of Fouriesburg they galloped, down from their saddles they leaped, up went the rifles; the foe poured in a few shots, and, appalled by the devilish audacity of the deed, fled before a handful. It was a proud moment then, when, in the last stronghold of the foe in all the Free State, Kensington, the aide of the General of the Eighth Division, with a little band of officers grouped around him, with the Scouts and Scots Guards lying behind cover, rifle in hand, pulled down the Orange Free State flag in the very teeth of the foe. Only a little band of officers--Kensington, Driscoll, Davies, and Tempest. May their names be remembered when the wine cups flow!
On the night of the 28th of July Colonel Harley, Chief Staff Officer Eighth Division, led two companies of the Leinsters and the full strength of the Scots Guards in a night attack on De Villier's Drift, which was to clear the way for the whole of the Eighth Division towards Fouriesburg. The movement had been well and carefully planned, and was neatly and expeditiously carried out. The following day we advanced in open order over the rolling veldt; now and again a man paused, lurched a little to one side, staggered and fell, as shot and shell dropped amongst us, but the march forward never ceased, never paused Paget and Hunter were with us now, and the lyddite guns seemed to drive all the fight out of the foe. They would not stand. Paget's artillerymen dashed forward, unlimbered, and loosed on the enemy with a recklessness of personal safety that was almost wanton.
Every branch of the Service was vying with its neighbour to see who could take the most chances in the game of war, and the very recklessness of the men was their safeguard, for their dash whipped the foe, who now seemed to realise that their evil hour had at last dawned. They sent in a flag of truce, asking for the terms on which they might surrender.
On the evening of the 29th July we knew that the enemy were negotiating for terms of peace, though things were kept as secret as possible until the following day. Then we saw General Prinsloo ride in with his aide and surrender. He met General Rundle first, and a few minutes later General Hunter, and the three leaders rode through the lines together. They were closeted closely for some hours before the final agreement could be arrived at. Prinsloo wanted terms for his men which the British generals would not concede, the final agreement being that the burghers were to ride in and throw down their arms under our flag. They were to be allowed a riding hack to convey them to the railway station, and each man was to remain in possession of his private effects. More than this General Hunter would not concede upon any terms. At one period of the negotiations things became so strained that hostilities were almost renewed, but the Hoof Commandant was wise enough to realise that destiny had decided against him and his burgher band. He came from the conclave at last, and gave an order in Dutch to his aide, and in a moment the horseman was flying towards the Boer laager with the news that, so far as they were concerned, the great war of 1899 and 1900 was at an end.
Our troops had been drawn up in long parallel lines, up over the slopes, over the crest, and along the edge of "Victory Hill." They formed a lane of blood and steel, down which the conquered veldtsmen had to march. Their guns were on their flanks, the generals grouped in the centre. Everything was hushed and still; there was no sign of braggart triumph, no unseemly mirth, no swagger in the demeanour of the troops. They had worked like men; they carried their laurels with conscious power and pride, but with no offensive show. It was a sight which few men ever behold, and none ever forget. The glory of the skies, where everything that met the eye was brightest blue, edged with stainless whiteness, was above us; and beneath our feet, and to right and left, were great valleys--not smiling like our English vales, where sunlight runs through shadows like laughter through tears, but vast uncultivated gaps that grinned in sardonic silence at conqueror and conquered, as though to remind us that we were but puppets in a passing show. Kopjes and valleys may have looked upon many a grim page in war's history. Savage chiefs, backed by savage hordes, have swept across them many a time and oft. Possibly, if the rocks had tongues, they could tell us much of ancient armies, for this land of Africa is old in blood and warlike doings. But few more remarkable sights than this upon which my eyes rested upon the 30th July, 1900, have ever graced even this land of many wonders.
I looked along our lines, and saw our soldiers standing patiently waiting for the curtain to fall. I was proud of them, and of the men who led them, for they had won without one cruel stroke. No single human life had wantonly been wasted, no dishonourable deed had smirched their arms, no smoking ruins cried aloud to God for retribution, no outraged women sobbed dry-eyed behind us, no starving children fled before the khaki wave; and in this last hour, an hour pregnant with humiliation and pain to our enemies, there was the steady manliness which spoke of the great dignity of a great nation. Out from the stillness a bugle spoke from the lines of the Leinsters; the Scottish bagpipes, far away down the hillside, took up the note with a shrill scream of triumph, like the challenge of an eagle in its eyrie. A rustle ran along the lines. We caught the hum of many voices, then the tramp of horses' hoofs. A soldier slipped towards the spot where our country's flag was furled and ready; a moment later the Union Jack spread out and hugged the breezes. Our foemen rode towards the flag between the lines of those whose hands had placed it there, and when they came abreast of it they dropped their rifles and their bandoliers, and with bent heads passed onwards.
Some were boys, so young that rifles looked unholy things in hands so childlike; others were old men, grey and grizzled, grim old tillers of the soil, who looked as hard as the rocky boulders against which they leant, many were in the pride of manhood; but old or young, grey beard or no beard, all of them seemed to realise that they were a beaten people. All day, and for many days, they came to us and laid their arms aside, until fully 4,000 men had owned themselves our prisoners. We gathered in the flocks and herds which had been held by them as army stores, and then we set to work to give the Free State peace and peaceful laws. Our next step was to march upon Harrismith, which was merely an armed promenade, for the real work of the campaign had been completed when, on Victory Hill, near Slap Kranz, Commandant Prinsloo surrendered with all his forces, excepting the few who fled with De Wet and Olivier. Our flag is the symbol of victory in every village and town. May it always be the symbol of even-handed justice, for no power in all the world, unless backed by wise and pure laws, will hold Africa for twenty years.
I have never before attempted to express an opinion upon the future of Africa, yet now, when I have been nine months at the front, when I have marched through the Free State from border to border, noting carefully the demeanour of the people we have conquered, and the conduct of our troops towards those people, I may be allowed by the more tolerant of the British public to express an opinion. I do not see "white winged peace" brooding over this country. I see a people beaten, broken, out-generalled, and out-fought. I see a people who, even when whipped, maintain that the war has been an unholy war, brewed and bred by a few adventurers for sordid motives; and in my poor opinion there is little in front of us in South Africa but trouble and storm, unless someone with a cleaner soul than the ordinary politician remains in Africa to represent our nation. Only one man seems to me to stand out as fitted by God and nature with the high qualities which the ruler of Africa should possess. He is a man who has the gift of leadership as few men--ancient or modern--ever possessed it, a man whose word is known to be unbreakable, whose hands are clean, whose record is stainless--the Field-Marshal, Lord Roberts. The man who is to rule South Africa must be a great soldier, not a tyrant, not a martinet, not a bundle of red tape tied up with a Downing Street bow and adorned with frills. The negro trouble is looming large on the African borders, and the negro chiefs know that in Lord Roberts they have their master. We must not pander to them to the injury of the Dutch, or how are we to weld Dutch and British into a national whole? Our generals have so conducted this campaign, especially this latter part of it, that not only does the Dutchman know that we can fight, but he knows that we can be generous with the splendid generosity of a truly great people. Our generals, with few exceptions, have left that record behind them, for which a nation's thanks are due; and few have done more than the commander of the Eighth Division, Sir Leslie Rundle, who can say that not only did he never lose an English gun, but that never did the enemy of his country succeed in breaking through his lines. Few men, placed as he was, week after week, month after month, would have been able to make so proud a boast.
These are possibly the last lines I shall ever write in connection with the Eighth Division. Their work is practically over here. My own is done, for my health is badly broken, and I shall follow this to England. But if I cannot march home with them, when they come back in triumph to receive from a grateful country the praise they have won, I can at least have the satisfaction of knowing that for many months I shared their vicissitudes, if not their glory.