When war appeared inevitable the spirit of the Boers rose to support them in their hour of trial, and only sentiments of patriotism and defiance were felt and expressed. Joy at the opportunity of proving once and for ever their ability to defend themselves and consequent right to independence, regret for friendships about to be severed—these were the chief emotions of the younger generation. The elder thought of past wrongs, long cherished, and silently took down the rifle from behind the door.
The women, ever strong in national spirit, lent the aid of their encouragements and prayers. Sons wept that they were too young to accompany their fathers on commando.
Yet there came a moment when for the space of a minute a mighty shadow seemed to brood over the land, and the cold chill of coming evil struck the nation as if from the clouds. A message had been despatched from Pretoria to every corner of the country. One word only: War!
The blow had fallen. Nothing could avert a sanguinary struggle. Well the burghers knew the overwhelming strength of the foe, but they went blithely forth to meet their fate, strong in a sincere confidence in Providence. If the worst came to the worst, well, "'twere better to have fought and lost, than never to have fought at all!"
Of all the branches of the Transvaal Civil Service there was not one that stood higher in the public estimation at that moment, nor one that distinguished itself more during the war, than that to which I had the honour to belong—the Department of Telegraphs. Equipped with the most up-to-date instruments, composed almost equally of picked men from England and Holland and of well-trained young Colonials and Transvaalers, under an energetic chief, our department proved itself, both before and during the war, second to none, and, the Afrikander portion at least, worthy of the confidence of the Government.
I had just been transferred from Johannesburg to Pilgrimsrest, a quaint little one-street village near the Portuguese frontier, one of the oldest alluvial diggings of the early days, and now the centre of an important mining district. Here we heard that our commandoes had invaded the enemy's territory in every direction, and news of the preliminary engagements was awaited with breathless interest. The male inhabitants of the village often spent entire nights under the verandah of the telegraph office, and the importance of the telegraphist suddenly grew almost too great to bear with becoming modesty.
One Sunday morning, however, the office wore a deserted look. The Dutch inhabitants were engaged in courteously escorting those of British birth or sympathies over the border, and I was alone. After a long interval of silence the instrument began ticking off a message—
Then came the list of the fallen. Name after name of well-known men fell like lead upon the ear. Finally my colleague at the other end gently signalled that of my uncle, followed by the sympathetic remark: "Sorry, old man."
I could write no more. What, my uncle dead! General Kock, Major Hall, Advocate Coster—all dead! It seemed impossible. We could not understand it, this first initiation of ours into war's horrible reality.
Within a week reinforcements were despatched from our district. I obtained a few weeks' leave of absence and accompanied them.
We were an interesting band. Two hundred strong, we counted among our number farmers, clerks, schoolmasters, students, and a publican. My mess consisted of a Colonial, an Irishman, a Hollander, a German, a Boer, and a Jew. It must not be imagined, however, that we were a cosmopolitan crowd, for the remaining hundred and ninety-four were nearly all true Boers, mostly of the backwoods type, extremely conservative, and inclined to be rather condescending in their attitude towards the clean-shaven town-dwellers. The almost universal respect inspired by a beard or a paunch is a poor tribute to human discernment.
Every mess possessed one or two ox-waggons, loaded with a tent, portmanteaux, trunks, foodstuffs, and ammunition. We made about twenty miles daily, passing through Lydenburg, Machadodorp, Carolina, and Ermelo, and reached Volksrust on the fourteenth day. During the march we learnt that heavy fighting had taken place in Natal, Dundee being taken and Ladysmith invested, and a strong commando had actually made a reconnaissance as far down as Estcourt.
General Joubert, who had bruised himself in the saddle during the latter expedition, was now recruiting his health here in Volksrust. I went to see him, and found him installed in a railway carriage, and looking very old and worn. I showed him a telegram instructing me to apply to him for a special passport enabling me to return when my leave expired.
He said, "Others want leave to go home; you ask for leave to come to the front. But your time is so short, it is hardly worth while. Still, I am glad to see such a spirit among you young people."
Turning to his secretary, he ordered the passport to be made out. This was done in pencil on the back of my telegram. The general signed, handed me the document, and shook my hand. I thanked him, and left, highly gratified.
We entrained that afternoon, slept in the carriages at Newcastle, reached Ladysmith, or rather our station nearest Ladysmith, the following day, disentrained, rode into camp, reported ourselves for duty, and went on outpost the same night.