A LITTLE PATCH OF WHITE TENTS—A DREAM OF DISTANCE—THE DESERT OF THE KARROO—WAR AT LAST—A CAMPAIGN WITHOUT HEADQUARTERS—WAITING FOR THE ARMY CORPS.
The wind screams down from the naked hills on to the little junction station. A platform with dining-room and telegraph office, a few corrugated iron sheds, the station-master's corrugated iron bungalow—and there is nothing else of Stormberg but veldt and, kopje, wind and sky. Only these last day's there has sprung up a little patch of white tents a quarter of a mile from the station, and about them move men in putties and khaki. Signal flags blink from the rises, pickets with fixed bayonets dot the ridges, mounted men in couples patrol the plain and the dip and the slope. Four companies of the Berkshire Regiment and the mounted infantry section—in all they may count 400 men. Fifty miles north is the Orange river, and beyond it, maybe by now this side of it, thousands of armed and mounted burghers—and war.
I wonder if it is all real? By the clock I have been travelling something over forty hours in South Africa, but it might just as well be a minute or a lifetime. It is a minute of experience prolonged to a lifetime. South Africa is a dream—one of those dreams in which you live years in the instant of waking—a dream of distance.
Departing from Capetown by night, I awoke in the Karroo. Between nine and six in the morning we had made less than a hundred and eighty miles. Now we were climbing the vast desert of the Karroo, the dusty stairway that leads on to the highlands of South Africa. Once you have seen one desert, all the others are like it; and yet once you have loved the desert, each is lovable in a new way. In the Karroo you seem to be going up a winding ascent, like the ramps that lead to an Indian fortress. You are ever pulling up an incline between hills, making for a corner round one of the ranges. You feel that when you get round that corner you will at last see something: you arrive and only see another incline, two more ranges, and another corner—surely this time with something to arrive at beyond. You arrive and arrive, and once more you arrive—and once more you see the same vast nothing you are coming from. Believe it or not, that is the very charm of a desert—the unfenced emptiness, the space, the freedom, the unbroken arch of the sky. It is for ever fooling you, and yet you for ever pursue it. And then it is only to the eye that cannot do without green that the Karroo is unbeautiful. Every other colour meets others in harmony—tawny sand, silver-grey scrub, crimson-tufted flowers like heather, black ribs of rock, puce shoots of screes, violet mountains in the middle distance, blue fairy battlements guarding the horizon. And above all broods the intense purity of the South African azure—not a coloured thing, like the plants and the hills, but sheer colour existing by and for itself.
It is sheer witching desert for five hundred miles, and for aught I know five hundred miles after that. At the rare stations you see perhaps one corrugated-iron store, perhaps a score of little stone houses with a couple of churches. The land carries little enough stock—here a dozen goats browsing on the withered sticks goats love, there a dozen ostriches, high-stepping, supercilious heads in air, wheeling like a troop of cavalry and trotting out of the stink of that beastly train. Of men, nothing—only here at the bridge a couple of tents, there at the culvert a black man, grotesque in sombrero and patched trousers, loafing, hands in pockets, lazy pipe in mouth. The last man in the world, you would have said, to suggest glorious war—yet war he meant and nothing else. On the line from Capetown—that single track through five hundred miles of desert—hang Kimberley and Mafeking and Rhodesia: it runs through Dutch country, and the black man was there to watch it.
War—and war sure enough it was. A telegram at a tea-bar, a whisper, a gathering rush, an electric vibration—and all the station and all the train and the very niggers on the dunghill outside knew it. War—war at last! Everybody had predicted it—and now everybody gasped with amazement. One man broke off in a joke about killing Dutchmen, and could only say, "My God—my God—my God!"
I too was lost, and lost I remain. Where was I to go? What was I to do? My small experience has been confined to wars you could put your fingers on: for this war I have been looking long enough, and have not found it. I have been accustomed to wars with headquarters, at any rate to wars with a main body and a concerted plan: but this war in Cape Colony has neither.
It could not have either. If you look at the map you will see that the Transvaal and Orange Free State are all but lapped in the red of British territory. That would be to our advantage were our fighting force superior or equal or even not much inferior to that of the enemy. In a general way it is an advantage to have your frontier in the form of a re-entrant angle; for then you can strike on your enemy's flank and threaten his communications. That advantage the Boers possess against Natal, and that is why Sir George White has abandoned Laing's Nek and Newcastle, and holds the line of the Biggarsberg: even so the Boers might conceivably get between him and his base. The same advantage we should possess on this western side of the theatre of war, except that we are so heavily outnumbered, and have adopted no heroic plan of abandoning the indefensible. We have an irregular force of mounted infantry at Mafeking, the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment at Kimberley, the Munster Fusiliers at De Aar, half the Yorkshire Light Infantry at De Aar, half the Berkshire Regiment at Naauwpoort—do not try to pronounce it—and the other half here at Stormberg. The Northumberlands—the famous Fighting Fifth—came crawling up behind our train, and may now be at Naauwpoort or De Aar. Total: say, 4100 infantry, of whom some 600 mounted; no cavalry, no field-guns. The Boer force available against these isolated positions might be very reasonably put at 12,000 mounted infantry, with perhaps a score of guns.
Mafeking and Kimberley are fairly well garrisoned, with auxiliary volunteers, and may hold their own: at any rate, I have not been there and can say nothing about them. But along the southern border of the Free State—the three railway junctions of De Aar, Naauwpoort, and Stormberg—our position is very dangerous indeed. I say it freely, for by the time the admission reaches England it may be needed to explain failure, or pleasant to add lustre to success. If the Army Corps were in Africa, which is still in England, this position would be a splendid one for it—three lines of supply from Capetown, Port Elizabeth, and East London, and three converging lines of advance by Norval's Pont, Bethulie, and Aliwal North. But with tiny forces of half a battalion in front and no support behind—nothing but long lines of railway with ungarrisoned ports hundreds of miles at the far end of them—it is very dangerous. There are at this moment no supports nearer than England. Let the Free Staters bring down two thousand good shots and resolute men to-morrow morning—it is only fifty miles, with two lines of railway—and what will happen to that little patch of white tents by the station? The loss of any one means the loss of land connection between Western and Eastern Provinces, a line open into the heart of the Cape Colony, and nothing to resist an invader short of the sea.
It is dangerous—and yet nobody cares. There is nothing to do but wait—for the Army Corps that has not yet left England. Even to-day—a day's ride from the frontier—the war seems hardly real. All will be done that man can do. In the mean time the good lady of the refreshment-room says: "Dinner? There's been twenty-one to-day and dinner got ready for fifteen; but you're welcome to it, such as it is. We must take things as they come in war-time." Her children play with their cats in the passage. The railway man busies himself about the new triangles and sidings that are to be laid down against the beginning of December for the Army Corps that has not yet left England.