At times nothing can be more unlovely than the stony, barren wilderness of the Karroo. The Sudan desert with its rocky hills and the broad Nile between the yellow banks is infinitely more picturesque than this vast South African plain. Still, at certain periods of the day and year the Karroo becomes less forbidding to the view. Sometimes after heavy rain the whole country is covered with a bright green carpet, but in summer, and, indeed, most of the year, the short scrub which here takes the place of grass is sombre in tint. Nevertheless cattle devour these apparently withered shrubs with avidity and thrive upon them. Again, when the warm tints of the setting sun flood the whole expanse of desert, there is a short-lived beauty in the rugged kopjes with all their fantastic outlines sharply silhouetted against the glowing sky. The farms on the Karroo, and, in fact, generally throughout the more northern parts of the colony, are of surprising size. It is quite common to find a Dutchman farming some 10,000 acres. Arable land in the Karroo is of course very rare, and one would think that the "Ooms" and the "Tantas" and their young hopefuls would have their time fully occupied even in keeping their large herds and flocks within bounds. One continually sees half a dozen ostriches stalking solemnly about a huge piece of the veldt, with no farm-house anywhere in sight, and it is difficult to understand how these people contrive to catch their animals.
At the lower extremity of the vast Nieuweveld range which shuts in the Karroo on the west lies the little township of Matjesfontein, a veritable oasis in the desert. Here lies the body of the gallant Wauchope who perished in the disastrous attack on the Magersfontein trenches. The whole line north of this point was patrolled by colonial volunteers, amongst whom I noticed especially the Duke of Edinburgh's Rifles, with gay ribbons round their "smasher" hats. Nothing could be less exciting or interesting than their monotonous routine of work. We continually came across a little band of, say, twenty or thirty men and a couple of officers stationed near some culvert or bridge. Their tents were pitched on a bit of stony ground, with not a trace of vegetation near it, and here they stayed for months together, half dead from the boredom of their existence. Nevertheless such work was quite essential to the success of the campaign, for the attitude of the Dutch colonists up-country has been throughout the war an uncertain factor, and if these long lines of communication had been left unprotected it is more than likely that our "Tommies'" supplies would not have arrived at the front with unfailing regularity. As it was, shots were occasionally fired at the trains, and at one spot we passed a curious incident occurred in this connection. A patrol suddenly came across a colonist who had climbed up a telegraph post and was busily engaged in cutting the wires. "Crack" went a Lee-Metford and the rebel, shot like a sitting bird, dropped from his perch to the ground. On another occasion we heard a dull explosion not unlike the boom of a heavy gun, and found a little later that a culvert had been blown up a few miles ahead of us not far from Graspan. In short, I do not think that the British public fully realised the danger threatened by any serious and extensive revolt of the Dutch colonists. Had the farmers in that vast triangle bounded by the railway, the coast and the Orange River thrown off their allegiance, it would have taken many more than 15,000 colonial volunteers to prevent their mobile commandos from swooping down here and there along this long line of railway, and utterly destroying our western line of communication as well as menacing Lord Methuen's forces in the rear. Whatever may be said or thought of some of Mr. Schreiner's actions, it is held, and justly held, by level-headed people of both parties at the Cape, that the continuance in office of the Dutch ministry has contributed more than anything else to preserve the colony from the peril of an internal rebellion. For this we cannot be too thankful!
Signs of animal life in the Karroo are few and far between. There are scarcely any flowers to attract butterflies, and I never saw more than four or five species of birds. There was one handsome bird, however, as big as a crow, with black and white plumage—probably the small bustard (Eupodotis afroides)—which occasionally rose from among the scrub and after a brief flight sank vertically to the ground in a curious fashion. Sometimes too, at nightfall, a large bird would fly with a strong harsh note across the stony veldt to the kopjes in the distance. Of the larger fauna I saw only the springbok. A small herd of these graceful little creatures were one evening running about the veldt within 500 yards of the train. On another occasion too, very early in the morning, one of our two Red Cross nurses was startled by the sudden appearance of a large baboon which crept down a gully near Matjesfontein—the only one we ever saw.
Between Matjesfontein and the great camp of De Aar there is little to interest or amuse the traveller. The only town which is at all worthy of the name is Beaufort West, nestling amid its trees, a bright patch of colour amid the neutral tints of the hills and surrounding country. Here reside many patients suffering from phthisis, for the air is dry and warm and the rainfall phenomenally small. But after all what a place to die in! Rather a shorter and sweeter life in dear England than a cycle of Beaufort West!
As we steamed into De Aar the sun had set, and all the ways were darkened, so, after a vain attempt to take a walk about the camp after the regulation hour, 9 P.M.—an effort which was checked by the praiseworthy zeal of the Australian military police—we returned to the train. Here I was greeted to my amazement by the notes of an anthem, "I will lay me down in peace," sung very well by our Welsh ex-choir-boy and two other members of the corps, who nevertheless did not lay them down in peace or otherwise till the small hours of the morning.
Next day we rose early, but found that we should have to spend five or six days at De Aar. This news was not at all pleasant. I have been in many dreary and uninteresting spots in the world, e.g., Aden or Atbara Camp, but I have never disliked a place as much as I did De Aar. The whole plain has been cut up by the incessant movement of guns, transport waggons and troops, and the result is that one is nearly choked and blinded by the dense clouds of dust. Huge spiral columns of sand tear across the plain over the tops of the kopjes, carrying with them scraps of paper and rubbish of all sorts. The irritation produced by the absorption of this permeating dust into the system militates to some extent against the rapid recovery of men who suffer from diseases like dysentery or enteric fever. It travels under doors and through window sashes, and a patient is obliged, whether he will or no, to swallow a certain amount of it daily. Nevertheless the South African dust does not appear to be so bacillus-laden as, e.g., that of Atbara Camp, which, amongst other evil effects, continually produced ulceration in the mouth and throat.
De Aar lies in the centre of a large plain, shut in on every side by kopjes. In fact its position is very similar indeed to that of Ladysmith. The hills on the east and west were always held by pickets with some field guns belonging to the Royal Artillery and the Prince Alfred's Artillery Volunteers. A much loftier line of kopjes to the north was untenanted by the British, but any approach over the veldt from the north-east was blocked by several rows of shelter trenches and a strongly-constructed redoubt with wire entanglements, ditch, and parapet topped with iron rails. Signallers were continually at work, and at night it was quite a pretty sight to watch the twinkling points of the signal lights as they flashed between the tents on the plain and the distant pickets on the tops of the kopjes. Boers had been seen to the east and on the west; some at least of the Dutch colonists were in open revolt; so officers and men were always prepared at a moment's notice to line the trenches for defence, while the redoubts and the batteries on the hills were permanently garrisoned.
Everybody loathed De Aar. With the exception of some feeble cricket played on some unoccupied patches of dusty ground, and a couple of shabby tennis courts, usually reserved for the "patball" of the local athletes of either sex, there was absolutely nothing to do, and we were too far off Modder River to feel that we were at all in the swim of things. The heat was sometimes appalling. On Christmas day the temperature was 105° in the shade, and most people took a long siesta after the midday dinner and read such odds and ends of literature as fell into their hands.
We train people, of course, read and slumbered in one of the wards, while our comrades under canvas lay with eight heads meeting in the centre of a tent and sixteen legs projecting from it like the spokes of a wheel. Mercifully enough scorpions were few and far between at De Aar, so one could feel fairly secure from these pests. How different it was in the Sudan campaign, especially at some camps like Um Teref, where batches of soldiers black and white came to be treated for scorpion stings, which in one case were fatal. A propos of reading we were wonderfully well provided with all manner of literature by the kindly forethought of good people in England. The assortment was very curious indeed. One would see lying side by side The Nineteenth Century, Ally Sloper's Half Holiday, and the Christian World. This literary syncretism was especially marked in the mission tent at De Aar, where the forms were besprinkled with an infinite variety of magazines and pamphlets—to such an extent indeed that in some cases the more vivid pages of a Family Herald would temporarily seduce the soldier's mind from the calmer pleasures of Mr. Moody's hymn book, and those who came to pray remained to read.
In the evening about 5 o'clock, when the rays of the setting sun were less vertical and the cool of the evening was not yet merged in the chill of the night, we sallied out for a stroll. Everybody walked to and fro and interchanged war news—such as we had!—and mutual condolences about the miseries of our forced inaction at De Aar. Canteens were opened in the various sections of the camp, and long columns of "Tommies" stood with mess-tins, three abreast, waiting their turn to be served, for all the world like the crowd at the early door of a London theatre. The natural irritability arising from residence in De Aar, added to the sultry heat and one's comparative distance from the canteen counter, frequently caused quarrels and personal assaults in the swaying column. But those who lost their temper generally lost their places too, and the less excitable candidates for liquor closed up their ranks and left the combatants to settle their differences outside. Non-commissioned officers enjoyed the privilege of entering a side door in the canteen for their beer, and thus avoided the crush: and one of my comrades cleverly but unscrupulously secured a couple of stripes somehow or other and, masquerading as a corporal, entered the coveted side door, and brought away his liquor in triumph.
Apart from these liquid comforts, which were, very properly, restricted in quantity, those of us who possessed any ready money could purchase sundry provisions at two stores in De Aar. The volunteers were paid at the rate of 5s. a day, which seems a very high rate of pay when one remembers that the British soldier, who ran much greater risk and did more actual fighting, received less than 1s. Of course there were volunteers here and there like myself who possessed some means of our own and so thought it right and proper to return our pay to the Widows' and Orphans' Fund, but nevertheless I fail to see why we should be paid at this exorbitant rate. The most glaring instances of over-paid troops were the Rimington Scouts, who actually received 10s. a day and their rations. One trembles to think of the bill we shall all have to pay at the close of the campaign!
The articles most in request at De Aar were things like "Rose's lime juice cordial," Transvaal tobacco, cigarettes, jam, tinned salmon, sardines, etc. Now it happened that the entire retail trade of the place was in the hands of two Jewish merchants. The more fashionable of the two shops took advantage of our necessities and demanded most exorbitant prices for its goods. "Lime juice cordial," e.g., which could be got for 1s. 6d. or 1s. 3d. in Capetown, was sold for 2s. 6d. and 3s. at De Aar, and the other charges were correspondingly high. Nemesis, however, overtook the shopman, for the camp commandant hearing of his evil deeds placed a sentry in front of the store and so put it out of bounds. He held out for a couple of days, while his more reasonable if less pretentious rival flourished exceedingly, but a daily loss of £200 is too severe a tax on the pertinacity of a Jew, or indeed of anybody, so the rival tariffs were arranged on similar lines, and the sentry sloped rifle and walked off. The mission workers at De Aar—some excellent people—dwelt in two railway carriages on a siding. There were, I think, two ladies and a gentleman. They worked exceedingly hard and their mission tent was generally well filled. It is astonishing what keenness is evoked by evangelical services with "gospel hymns". We all sang a hymn like "I do believe, I will believe," with an emphasis which seemed to imply that the effort was considerable, but that nobody, not even a Boer commando, could alter our conviction. Many of the hymns—poor doggerel from a literary point of view—were sung to pleasing tunes wonderfully well harmonised by the men's voices. Then there was a brief address by a young man with a serious and kindly face, and this was succeeded by a series of ejaculatory prayers taken up here and there by the men. It was a strange and impressive spectacle to see a soldier rise to his feet, his beard rough and unkempt, his khaki uniform all soiled and bedraggled, and forthwith proceed to utter a long prayer. Such prayers were largely composed of supplications on behalf of wives and families at home, and one forgot the bad grammar, the rough accent and the monotonous repetition in one's sympathy for these honest fellows who were not ashamed to pray.