The march from Bloemfontein to Pretoria was one never to be forgotten. It taxed the strength of the strongest. There was fighting most of the way, and many a soldier who started full of hope never reached the end. The first stage was from Bloemfontein to Kroonstadt.
Mr. W.K. Glover, of the S.C.A., arrived at Kroonstadt in company with Mr. D.A. Black, but there was taken ill and compelled to rest. The Rev. T.F. Falkner and the Rev. E.P. Lowry marched nearly the whole way to Kroonstadt with the troops, and the latter speaks of it as the most trying march of the whole campaign. Opportunities for Christian work, with the exception of the hearty handshake or the whispered prayer, were but few, though during the pauses at Brandfort and at Kroonstadt several successful services were held.
A new name now appears on the line of march--that of the Rev. W.G. Lane, chaplain to the second Canadian contingent. He accompanied the Canadian Forces as Chaplain-Captain, and had the spiritual charge of all Protestants except those of the Episcopal Church.
The March to Pretoria.
We have, however, our fullest account of Christian work on the line of march from the pen of the Rev. Frank Edwards, the acting Wesleyan chaplain attached to the South Wales Borderers. He came out late in the war at his own charges to preach to the Welsh soldiers in their own language, and only overtook Lord Roberts at Brandfort. He shows us in vivid outline the sort of work our chaplains did between Bloemfontein and Pretoria.
'And now for the regular routine of "life on the march." We rise at 4 a.m. in the dark and cold, breakfast hastily on biscuit and tea made of very doubtful water, stand shivering in the piercing cold of dawn while troops are paraded, then start on our way long before the sun rises to warm our frozen frames. We march an hour and rest ten minutes--the hour is very long, the ten minutes very short.
South African Dust.
'The marching would be tolerable were it not for the heat and dust, the latter lying in some places quite nine inches deep, rising in clouds. It fills your eyes, nostrils, mouth and throat, causing one's lips to crack and bringing on an intolerable thirst, which makes it impossible for the men to be very fastidious, or even prudent with regard to the quality or source of the water which they greedily drink. At night when we reach our camping-ground our first thought is of our great-coats, for we are bathed in perspiration, and as the sun goes down about 5.30, night immediately following without any twilight, the intense heat of the almost tropical day is changed in a few minutes into the bitter cold of what might almost be called, from its length and severity, an Arctic night.
'At the Zand River I saw my first fight. That morning, as the troops were drawn up in marching order, the ominous command was given, "Charge magazines," and every man knew that something was about to happen, and a murmur ran along the ranks. After an hour's march we came in sight of the Zand River, with its kopjes on the farther side. As our battalion came in view of the river we saw the enemy's guns flashing on the distant kopjes, and showers of shells fell on this side the river into the trees in our front. On our right some mounted infantry were lying behind a kopje, and nothing could be more magnificent than to see the volleying shells burst in a successive line along the ridge of their sheltering kopje. At the edge of the wood we were halted and ordered to lie down; as the artillery dashed by us to the front, where they were soon busily pounding the Boer position, "Advance!" our Colonel cried. Up we arose, marched through the trees down into the river-bed, and there we lay while the shells screamed over us.
'The first shell that came screaming--I can use no better term--towards us seemed to cause a cold feeling inside, and I felt as though my last hour had come; but that soon passed, and I became so accustomed to them that I found myself speculating as to where they would burst. While we lay in the river-bed, one monster burst with a roar like thunder upon the bank behind, shaking the ground like an earthquake.
'Our rest here was the calm before the storm, and as we awaited the word to advance into the fight that was raging overhead, I had an opportunity of studying the faces of the soldiers who were going, perhaps, to death. Some were pale with excitement, and their eyes flashed as they clutched their rifles and compressed their lips. Others laughed wildly, another was hungrily gnawing a hard biscuit, while many were smoking furiously. A few appeared quite indifferent, and might have been awaiting the order for a march. The officers were splendidly cool, and gave their orders as clearly and calmly as on parade.
On the Firing Line.
'"Advance!" was again the cry, and up the banks we went and into the trees on the further side. Here we saw the effect of the shell fire and war upon the battle plain. Our batteries were busily engaged about two hundred yards away, and the death-dealing missiles of friend and foe flew mercilessly about. As we were likely to remain in the tree shelter for a while, I strolled out as far as the batteries, for I wished to have a better view of the Boer position; but here the shells were falling fast between the guns, and one poor gunner was cruelly mutilated by a bursting shell, his dead body presenting a ghastly sight.
'I went back, and met the General and some of his staff inspecting the Boer position with a huge telescope. I had a good look, and clearly saw our shells burst in the embrasure of a gun, which was hurriedly taken away.
'Just then the General wanted to send a message, but had no available messenger. Saluting, I asked that I might be sent. He gave me the message, and springing on a horse which a servant held near, I galloped away. It was a strange experience that entry into the fire-zone, but I forgot all fear in the fight, and delivered my message. I returned to the General, who thanked me for my promptness.
'Our line had meanwhile advanced, and it was grand to see the steadiness of our men. Though bullets spat viciously in the sand before, between, and behind them, not a man flinched, but went steadily on to the heights beyond. I asked the General to send me with another order, which he wished taken to a half battalion some distance ahead, but as he was about to do so, he saw the cross upon my collar, and asked me if I was not a chaplain. I replied in the affirmative, and he inquired where my red cross armlet was. I told him I did not possess one, and was told that I must get one at once. The General then told me he was very sorry, but he could not use me again, as I was a non-combatant, and if he availed himself of my services, he would be infringing the Geneva Convention; while, on the other hand, if the Boers captured me, I should be shot.
'I was Thinking of the Last Verses of the Twenty-third Psalm.'
'One incident which occurred during the day made a deep impression upon me. While in the river drift, on the point of moving into the thick of the fight and fire, I observed a soldier thoughtfully leaning upon his elbow, and was moved to ask him what his thoughts were at that moment. Lifting his eyes steadfastly to mine, he replied, "I was thinking, sir, of the last verses of the twenty-third Psalm"; and as he spoke I knew I was face to face with a man for whom death had no terrors, one who was looking for the crown of life. It was a word in season, and was very helpful.
'We encamped that night upon the heights lately occupied by the enemy. Friday was taken up with another tedious march upon Kroonstadt, and on Saturday we advanced in fighting formation upon that place, momentarily expecting to meet the Boers, whom our scouts reported entrenched in position some miles this side the town. However, we found they had gone, and Kroonstadt was entered about mid-day, and we encamped outside.
'The next day being Sunday, my first thought was to make arrangement for services. I interviewed the General, and he allowed me to fix my own time--an hour later than the Church of England parade--in order that the men of the 14th Brigade might be able to come down. On Sunday morning I held my first parade service with my regiment. There was a splendid attendance--men of the Borderers, Cheshires, Lancs, Engineers, and many from the other Brigade.
A Service on the Veldt.
'At the close of the morning service, after a conversation among themselves, several stepped out and asked for an evening service. I had not intended holding one, as I thought they had been marching for weeks and were tired and weary, and had clothes to wash and mend, and this might be their only opportunity for weeks, perhaps; so I asked that all who wished for an evening service would put up their hands. Every man did so, and the Colonel was only too glad to arrange it for me. That evening, half an hour after the time for tea, we met again on the open veldt, in front of our lines, and we had a splendid muster--more than the morning. The hymns went splendidly. Two soldiers led in prayer--short and very earnest--then we sang and prayed. Two addresses by two more soldiers--straight and good and to the point--addresses which had a deep effect upon all. Another hymn, then I spoke to them about the "Standard of Jesus," and we felt the power of the presence of God. Kneeling on the veldt, man after man broke down. Many openly confessed their sin, others rejoiced in true Methodist style. Even then they were not satisfied; a prayer-meeting was asked for and all stayed. It was truly a grand prayer-meeting. Prayers and hymns followed free and fast, and many at the close, as they pressed forward to shake hands with me and thank me for coming, said it was one of the happiest Sundays of their life. "More like a Sunday at home sir, than any we have had out here; we did not know what Sunday was before." Many found peace with God that night and determined to lead a new life.
'That night I got permission to have hymns sung in the lines, and you should have heard the Welsh hymns as they rose and fell in the night air. Men crowded from all parts. Officers and men jostled in the crowding ring while the sweet melodies and beautiful harmonies thrilled every soul. It was a happy ending to a happy day. The Colonel has asked me to arrange for this hymn-singing every Sunday night, for he says it is very beautiful, and not only is it highly appreciated by the men, but it has a beneficial influence on them.
'On Tuesday I had permission to arrange a camp concert. We had a huge wood fire. A wagon drawn up served for a platform. The Colonel took the chair. The officers were in the ring and the men grouped around. It was a weird and romantic sight--all those laughing and appreciative faces in the flickering fire-light--and we had a very pleasant evening.
'On Monday, as we were still encamped here, I organized a football match and acted as referee, which in a tropical sun is no sinecure, I can tell you. On Wednesday I rode into Kroonstadt and had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Lowry, Mr. Lane, the Canadian chaplain, and Mr. Carey, the resident Wesleyan minister, and we had a pleasant time.'
Thus progressed the work; thus one Christian worker after another distinguished himself, while all the time Lord Roberts was rapidly drawing nearer his goal. Now Brandfort was reached, now Kroonstadt, and at last the Diamond City, Johannesburg--no, not last, Pretoria lies beyond, and by-and-by the victorious forces entered the capital of the Transvaal, and the British flag--symbol of world-wide empire--floated over the Government Buildings.
And here we pause. The day is now not distant when the British flag will be respected throughout both those one-time Republics, and peace shall once more hold sway. When that time comes we predict a magnificent extension of the kingdom of Christ in South Africa; for we trust that, with old feuds forgotten and the Spirit of Christ taking possession of both British and Boer, all forms of Christianity will join hands to make Christ King throughout the Dark Continent.