The first view of Capetown from the sea is not easily forgotten. We sailed into the bay just as the sun was rising in splendour behind the cliffs of Table Mountain. The houses of the town which fill the space between the hills and the sea were still more or less in shadow, picked out here and there by twinkling lights. On the summit rested a fleecy cloud which concealed the pointed crags and hung from the edges of the precipice like a border of fine drapery. On the right, groups of buildings stretched onwards to Sea Point, where the surf was breaking on the rocks within a few feet of the road; on the left were the more picturesque suburbs of Rosebank, Newlands and Claremont nestling amid their woods and orchards; and still further on lay Wynberg, with its vast hospital, already become a household word in English homes. The dreary flats of Simon's Bay, where British war-ships lay at anchor, shut in the view.
Pleasing as the picture is when seen from the deck of a Castle Liner, disappointment generally overtakes the voyager who has landed. Capetown itself has little to boast of in the way of architecture. Except Adderley Street, which is adorned by the massive buildings of the Post Office and Standard Bank, the thoroughfares of the town offer scarcely any attractions. The Dutch are not an artistic race, and the fact that natives here live not in "locations" but anywhere they choose has covered some portions of the town's area with ugly and squalid houses. Nor, as a matter of fact, does the general tone of thought and feeling in Cape Colony naturally lend itself to aesthetic considerations. Even the churches fail to escape the influence of a spirit which subordinates everything else to practical and utilitarian considerations. Can two uglier buildings of their kind be found in the civilised world than the English and Dutch cathedrals at Capetown?
Another unpleasant feature of life in Capetown is the misfortune, not the fault, of the inhabitants in being frequently exposed to the full fury of the south-east wind. Sometimes for whole days together the Cape is swept by tremendous blasts, which tear up the sea into white foam and raise clouds of blinding dust along the streets of the town.
Nevertheless the kindness and generosity of the people are not in any way lessened by these unpleasant features in their surroundings. The warmth of colonial hospitality is acknowledged by all travellers, and may be partly due to that love of the mother country which survives in the hearts of Englishmen who have never left South Africa, and yet recognise in the visitor a kind of tie, as it were, between themselves and old England. Such hospitality blesses him that gives as well as him that takes, and the host listens with deepest interest to his guest's chatter about London, or perhaps the country town or village where he or his forefathers lived in days gone by. Any one who is accustomed in England to the conventional "Saturday to Monday" or the "shooting week" in a country house opens his eyes with wonder when he receives a warm invitation from a colonial to spend a month with him at his house on the Karroo. And such invitations, unlike those which the Oriental traveller receives, are uttered in earnest and meant to be accepted.
Capetown is by far the most cosmopolitan of all our colonial capitals. Englishmen, Dutchmen, Jews, Kaffirs, "Cape boys" and Malays bustle about the streets conversing in five or six different languages. There is a delightful freedom from conventionalism in the matter of dress. At one moment you meet a man in a black or white silk hat, at another a grinning Kaffir bears down upon you with the costume of a scarecrow; you next pass a couple of dignified Malays with long silken robes and the inevitable tarbush, volubly chattering in Dutch or even Arabic. These Malays form a particularly interesting section of the population. They are largely the descendants of Oriental slaves owned by the Dutch, and, of course, preserve their Moslem faith, though some of its external observances, e.g., the veiling of women, have ceased to be observed. I did my best during a few days' stay at Somerset West to witness one of their great festivals called "El Khalifa". At this feast some devotees cut themselves with knives until the blood pours from the wounds, and a friend of mine who had witnessed the performance on one occasion seemed to think that in some cases the wounding and bleeding were not really objective facts, but represented to the audience by a species of hypnotic suggestion. As, however, my visit to Somerset West took place during the month of Ramazan there was no opportunity of witnessing the "Khalifa," which would be celebrated during Bairam, the month of rejoicing which amongst Moslems all the world over succeeds the self-mortifications of Ramazan. Even if their external observances of the usages of Islam seem somewhat lax, the Cape Moslems, I found, faithfully observe the month of abstinence, and I remember talking to a most intelligent Malay boy, who was working hard as a mason in the full glare of the midday heat, and was touching neither food nor drink from sunrise to sunset.
All around were signs and tokens of the war. Large transports lay gently rolling upon the swell in every direction, and it was said that not less than sixty ships were lying at anchor together in the bay. H.M.S. Niobe and Doris faced the town, and further off was stationed the Penelope, which had already received its earlier contingents of Boer prisoners. It is very difficult, by the way, to understand how some of these captives contrived later on to escape by swimming to the shore, for, apart from the question of sharks, the distance to the beach was considerable.
On land the whole aspect of the streets was changed. Every few yards one met men in khaki and putties. This cloth looks fairly smart when it is new and the buttons and badges are burnished; but, after a very few weeks at the front, khaki uniforms become as shabby as possible. No one who is going into the firing line has any wish to draw the enemy's fire by the glint of his buttons or his shoulder-badges, and so these are either removed or left to tarnish. Nor does khaki—at any rate the "drill" variety—improve its beauty by being washed. When one has bargained with a Kaffir lady to wash one's suit for ninepence it comes back with all the glory of its russet brown departed and a sort of limp, anæmic look about it. And when the wearer has lain upon the veldt at full length for long hours together in rain and sun and dust-storm his kit assumes an inexpressible dowdiness, and preserves only its one superlative merit of so far resembling mother earth that even the keen eyes behind the Mauser barrels fail to spot Mr. Atkins as he lies prone behind his stone or anthill.
As our lumbering cab drove up Adderley Street to the hotel a squadron of the newly raised South African Light Horse rode past. The men looked very jaunty and well set up with their neat uniforms, bandoliers and "smasher" hats with black cocks' feathers. There has never been the slightest difficulty in raising these irregular bodies of mounted infantry. The doors of their office in Atkinson's Buildings were besieged by a crowd of applicants—very many of them young men who had arrived from England for the purpose of joining. A certain amount of perfectly good-humoured banter was levelled against these brand-new soldiers by their friends, and some fun poked at them about their riding. Occasionally, for instance, a few troopers were unhorsed during parade and the riderless steeds trotted along the public road at Rosebank. But certainly the tests of horsemanship were severe. Many of the horses supplied by Government were very wild and sometimes behaved like professional buckjumpers; and it is no easy task to control the eccentric and unexpected gyrations of such a beast when the rider is encumbered with the management of a heavy Lee-Metford rifle. Since the day on which I first saw the squadron in question it has passed through its baptism of fire at Colenso. The Light Horse advanced on the right of Colonel Long's ill-fated batteries, and was cruelly cut up by a murderous fire from Hlangwane Hill.
Capetown is not well furnished with places of amusement. There is, it is true, a roomy theatre, whose manager, Mr. de Jong, sent an invitation to the staff of the "Pink 'Un" to dine with him and his friends at Pretoria on New Year's Day! How the Boers must have laughed when they read of this cordial invitation! During the few days which elapsed before our ambulance train started for the front we paid a visit to the theatre, but we found the stage tenanted by a "Lilliputian Company," and it is always tiresome and distressing to watch precocious children of twelve aping their elders. One feels all the time that the whole performance scarcely rises above an exhibition of highly-trained cats or monkeys, and that the poor mites ought all to be in bed long ago. Nevertheless, this dreary theatre was, in default of anything better, visited again and again by British officers and others. A friend of mine in the Guards told me with a sigh that he had actually watched the performances of these accomplished infants for no less than seven nights.
There are several music halls in Capetown. I have visited similar entertainments in Constantinople, Cairo, Beyrout and other towns of the East, but I never saw anything to match some of these Capetown haunts for out-and-out vulgarity. There was, it is true, a general air of "patriotism" pervading them—but it was frequently the sort of patriotism which consists in getting drunk and singing "Soldiers of the Queen". On one occasion I remember a curious and typical incident at one of these music halls. Standing among a crowd of drunken and half-drunken men was a quiet and respectable-looking man drinking his glass of beer from the counter. One of the habitués of the place suddenly addressed him, and demanded with an oath whether he had ever heard so good a song as the low ditty which had just been screamed out by a painted woman on the stage. The stranger remarked quietly that it "wasn't a bad song, but he had certainly heard better ones," when the bully in front without any warning struck him a violent blow in the face, felling him to the ground. A comrade of mine, a Welshman, who was standing near the victim, protested against such cowardly behaviour, and was immediately set upon by some dozen of the audience, who savagely knocked him down and then drove him into the street with kicks and blows. These valiant individuals then returned and were soon busy with a hiccuping chorus of "Rule, Britannia". How forcibly the whole scene recalled Dr. Johnson's words: "Patriotism, sir, is the last resort of a scoundrel".
The Uitlander refugees were numerous in Capetown, and the principal hotels were full of them. Those whom I happened to meet did not seem at all overwhelmed by their recent oppression, and some of them contrived out of their shattered fortunes to drink champagne for dinner at a guinea a bottle. I do not think that the average Johannesburg Uitlander impresses the Englishman very favourably. Mining camps are not the best nurseries for good breeding or nobility of character, and one could not help feeling sorry that gallant Englishmen were dying by hundreds while some of these German Jews wallowed in security and luxury. Quite recently an officer overheard a "Jew-boy" loudly declaring in a shop that "after all, British soldiers were paid to go out and get shot," etc., and in a fit of righteous indignation the Englishman seized the Semite and threw him out of the door.
English visitors to the Cape who, like myself, wished to contribute our humble share towards the work of the campaign had several directions in which to utilise their energies. The Prince Alfred's Field Artillery was raising recruits, and on the point of leaving for the front for the defence of De Aar. The Duke of Edinburgh's Rifle Volunteers enlisted men on Thursday, drilled them day and night, and sent them off on the Tuesday. This fine corps has, much to its vexation, been almost continuously employed in guarding lines of communication and protecting bridges and culverts from any violence at the hands of colonial rebels. The South African Light Horse has already been mentioned. For those of us who found it impossible to pledge ourselves for the whole period of the war, owing to duties at home which could not be left indefinitely, and who possessed some knowledge of ambulance work, an excellent opening was found in one of the ambulance corps originated by the Red Cross Society under Colonel Young's able and energetic management.
Having volunteered for service on one of the ambulance trains and been accepted, I set off with a corporal to Woodstock Hospital to secure my uniform and kit. The quartermaster who supplied me was justly annoyed because some mistake had been made about the hour for my appearance, and when he rather savagely demanded what sized boots I wore, I couldn't for the life of me remember and blurted out "nines," whereas my normal "wear" is "sevens". Instantly a pair of enormous boots and a correspondingly colossal pair of shoes were hurled at me, while, from various large pigeon-holes in a rack, bootlaces, socks, putties and other things were rained upon me. I couldn't help laughing as I picked them up. Here I was equipped from head to foot with two uniform suits of khaki—which mercifully fitted well—shirts, boots, shoes, helmet, field-service cap and other minutiae, and the entire equipment occupied some four minutes all told. What a contrast to the considerable periods of time often consumed at home over the colour of a tie or the shape of a collar!
Shouldering the waterproof kit-bag containing my brand-new garments, and saluting the irritated officer, I marched off to ambulance train No. 2, where I speedily exchanged my civilian habiliments for her Majesty's uniform. The "fall" of my nether garments was not perfect, but on the whole I was rather pleased with the fit of the khaki, relieved on the arm with a red Geneva Cross.
One of the two ambulance trains on the western side is manned entirely by regulars, the other (No. 2) is in charge of an R.A.M.C. officer, but the staff under him is composed almost wholly of volunteers. This staff consists of a civilian doctor from a London hospital attached to the South African Field Force, two Red Cross nurses from England, a staff sergeant, two corporals, a couple of cooks and ten "orderlies" in charge of the five wards.
Introductions to my comrades followed. We were certainly one of the oddest collection of human beings I have ever come across. Our pursuits when not in active service were extremely varied—one of our number was an accountant, another a chemist, a third brewed beer in Johannesburg, a fourth was an ex-baker, and so on. We were, on the whole, a very harmonious little society, and it was with real regret that I left my comrades when I returned to England. At least four of our number were refugees from Johannesburg, and very anxious to return. These unfortunates retailed at intervals doleful news about well-furnished houses being rifled, Boer children smashing up porcelain ornaments and playfully cutting out the figures from costly paintings with a pair of scissors, and grand pianos being annexed to adorn the cottages of Kaffir labourers. Another member of our little society had a very fair voice and good knowledge of music, for in the days of his boyhood he had sung in the choir of a Welsh cathedral; since that time he had practised as a medical man and driven a tramcar. The weather was very trying sometimes and J——, our Welsh singer, had acquired an almost supernatural skill in leaping from the train when it stopped for a couple of minutes, securing a bottle of Bass and then boarding the guard's van when the train was moving off. On one of these successful forays I saw J—— send three respectable people sprawling on their backs as he violently collided with them in his desperate efforts to overtake the receding train. The victims slowly got up and some nasty remarks about J—— were wafted to us over the veldt. We had a couple of cooks. One of them was an American who had served in the Cuban war, the other a big Irishman called Ben. The American chef, being the only man out of uniform on the train, had access to alcoholic refreshments at the stations, which were very properly denied to the troops, and he rejoiced exceedingly to exercise his privilege. He could sleep in almost any position, and generally lay down on the kitchen dresser without any form of pillow, or slept serenely in a sitting posture with his feet elevated far above his head.
We steamed away from the Capetown station in the afternoon. The regular service had to a large extent been suspended, and here and there sentries with fixed bayonets kept watch over the government trains as they lay on the sidings. If it was thought prudent to guard trains from any injury in Capetown itself, one can realise the absolute necessity of employing the colonial volunteers in patrolling the long line of some 600 miles from the sea to Modder River.
"Queen Victoria's afternoon tea"—as we called it—was served about five. The two orderlies for the day brought from the kitchen a huge tea-urn, some dozen bowls, and two large loaves. We supplemented this rudimentary fare with a pot of "Cape gooseberry" jam, the gift of a generous donor, and improved the quality of the tea with a little condensed milk. Fresh from the usages of a more effete civilisation I did not feel after two cups of tea and some butterless bread that "satisfaction of a felt want"—to quote Aristotle—which comes, say, after a dinner with the Drapers' Company in London, and for two nights I tore open and devoured with my ward-companion a tin of salmon which I bought from a Jew along the line. But, strange to say, after a few days of this régime, which in its chronological sequence of meals and its strange simplicity recalled the memories of early childhood, my internal economy seemed to have adapted itself to the changed environment, and after five o'clock with its tea and bread I no longer wished for more food. Exactly the same experience befalls those inexperienced travellers in tropical countries who, at first, are continually imbibing draughts of water, but soon learn the useful lesson of drinking at meal-time only, and before long do not even take the trouble to carry water-bottles with them at all.
Our destination was supposed to be De Aar, but nobody ever knew exactly where we were going or what we were going to do when we got there. During a campaign orders filter through various official channels, and frequently by the time they have reached the officer in charge of a train others of a contradictory purport are racing after them over the wires. This sort of thing is absolutely unavoidable. Between the army at the front and the great base at Capetown stretched some 700 miles of railway, and over this single line of rails ran an unending succession of trains carrying troops, food, guns, and last, but by no means least, tons upon tons of ammunition. The work of supplying a modern army in the field is stupendous, and the best thanks of the nation are due to the devoted labours of the Army Service Corps. The officers and men of the A.S.C. work night and day, they rarely see any fighting, and are seldom mentioned in the public press or in despatches; yet how much depends upon their zeal and devotion! Amateur critics at home have frequently asked why such and such a general has not left strong positions on the flank and advanced into the enemy's country further afield. Quite apart from the fearful danger of exposing our lines of communication to attack from a strong force of the enemy, these critics do not seem to possess the most elementary idea of what is involved in the advance of an army. How do they suppose hundreds of heavily laden transport waggons are to be dragged across the uneven veldt, intersected every now and then by rugged "kopjes" and "spruits" and "dongas"? Ammunition alone is a serious item to be considered. Lyddite shells, e.g., are packed two in a case: each case weighs 100 lb., and I have frequently seen a waggon loaded with, say, a ton of these shells, and drawn by eight mules, stuck fast for a time in the open veldt; the passers-by have run up and shoved at the wheels and so at last the lumbering cart has jogged slowly on. This load would probably in action disappear in half an hour; and when one reflects that in one of our recent engagements each battery fired off 200 shells, it is easy to understand the enormous weight of metal which has to follow an army in order to make the artillery efficient, and to realise how unwilling a general is to leave a railway behind him, and attempt to move his transport across the uncertain and devious tracks of an unmapped African veldt. Lord Kitchener's successful march upon Omdurman was only rendered possible by the fact that the army kept continuously to the railway and the Nile.
The railway journey northwards is full of interest. Between Capetown and Worcester the country is well watered and fields of yellow corn continually meet the eye, interspersed with vines and mealies. Yet here and there that lack of enterprise which seems to characterise the Dutch farmer is easily noticeable. Irrigation is sadly neglected and hundreds of acres which with a little care and outlay would grow excellent crops are still unproductive.
Soon after leaving Worcester the line rises by steep gradients nearly 2,500 feet. Right in front the Hex River Mountains extend like a vast barrier across the line and seem to defy the approaching train. But engineering skill has here contrived to surmount all the obstacles set up by Nature. The train goes waltzing round the most striking curves, some of them almost elliptical. Tremendous gradients lead through tunnels and over bridges, and the swerving carriages run often in alarming proximity to the edge of precipitous ravines. What a splendid position for defensive purposes! Had the present war been declared three weeks earlier De Aar would have been quite unable to stand against the Boers, and thus the enemy might with his amazing mobility have made a swift descent along the railway and occupied the Hex River pass. Out of this position not all the Queen's horses and all the Queen's men would have dislodged him without enormous loss. With the armed support of all the Dutch farmers from Worcester to the Orange River, a Boer occupation of this strong position would have been a terrible menace to Capetown itself. As it is, shots are occasionally fired at trains as they run northward from Worcester, and as a few pounds of dynamite would wreck portions of the Hex River line for weeks the government patrols in this locality cannot be too careful.
Our first passage through the Karroo was by night, but during the busy days of service which followed we frequently saw this dreary expanse of desert in daylight. Some mysterious charm, hidden from the eyes of the unsympathetic tourist, dwells in the Karroo. The country folk who inhabit these vast plains all agree that to live in them is to love them. Children speak of the kopjes as if they were living playmates, and farmers grow so deeply attached to their waggons and ox teams that Sir Owen Lanyon's forcible seizure of one in distraint for taxes appeared a kind of sacrilege in the eyes of the Boers.