True to that instinct which finds the Boer the most insanitary race laying claim to a civilisation of any standard, the squatters who settled upon Hopetown as a site suitable for a village chose a situation as insalubrious as any to be found on the fringe of the Karoo. In a cup-valley of mean dimensions, the little collection of shanties which group round the church and town-hall lay tucked away in the folds of the bare dusty hills, so that if tracks did not converge upon the village with consistent regularity there would be no evidence outside a narrow radius of its existence. It was not until the advance-guard covering the New Cavalry Brigade topped the actual bluff above the hamlet that the [247]temporary importance of Hopetown was realised. The dip in which the village lay was black with the transport of many columns, and the dust and smoke raised by the thousands of animals and hundreds of cooking fires formed a heavy haze which, covering the township as with a pall, hung half-way between the level of the valley and the overhanging brae where the advance-guard stood halted. It was not an inviting picture. The dust and vapour seemed unable to face the perpendicular violence of the midday sun; the only perceptible movement in the middle distance was the shimmer of the atmosphere, squirming as it were under the relentless heat; while the great pall of dust and smoke, as if ashamed to raise its head, mushroomed out against the hillsides with undecided edging.

As we stood gasping for some breath of air to relieve the burden of oppressive heat, it seemed that the valley was some great stew-pot of the inferno, and that Hopetown was simmering at its bottom.

The brigadier cantered up to the advance-guard, and throwing his reins to his orderly, [248]made a brief survey of the topographical approaches to Hopetown.

Brigadier. "Well, there is not much of De Wet left in this corner of the world. All the commandoes[35] of the Hunt seem to have forgathered here and to be having a day off. What a hole of a place—ideal, no doubt, from the Dutchman's point of view. Why, the smell of it reaches up here. But here comes a robber in a pink 'beaver'; we shall soon know all about it."

A diminutive boy in staff kit cantered up and demanded information about the column.

Staff Officer. "What column is this?"

B. "The New Cavalry Brigade."

S. O. "Never heard of you. Who told you to come in here? Who commands you?"

B. "Steady, my fledgling, one question at a time. You are given to heaping matters, I see, which is a bad habit in one so young. I will answer one of your questions, the last one. I command this column: and now you will answer me. What columns are in Hopetown?"

S. O. "Sorry, sir, but——"

[249]B. "Don't apologise. I know I don't look like a general, but it doesn't help you out of your difficulties to say so. You only slip into it worse every time; now, then, to the columns?"

S. O. "Knox's, Pilcher's, Plumer's, and Paris's."

B. "Good; and what is the latest news about De Wet?"

S. O. "He has broken out east across the railway; half his force went up north and half crossed by Paauwpan or Potfontein."

B. "Who are on him?"

S. O. "I am not quite sure; but I hear that Haig, Thorneycroft, Crabbe and Henniker are either following him or trying to cut him off."

B. "And what are four columns doing halted here in this dorp?"[36]

S. O. "They are all stone cold."

B. "The price of losing De Wet. Now, young feller, just you hie back to your general, Charles Knox, I suppose, and tell him that the New Cavalry Brigade is coming right in here, but will not worry him long, [250]as it has orders to be off to-night. (The youth salutes and goes to the right-about, while the brigadier continues to his staff) Just as well to let Knox know that I am on my own. I must invent a special mission from Pretoria, otherwise he may seize me like the last fellow, and the future state of this column might then be worse than the first."

In the meantime the brigade led down into the noisome basin which holds Hopetown, and took up temporary quarters on the first patch against the water into which it could squeeze its long line of transport. It wedged in between two columns, and the bad condition of both gave evidence of the severity of the work in which they had recently been engaged. As columns, when they had first entered upon the chase after De Wet, they had each been five or six hundred strong; now, perhaps, between them they could count five hundred mounted men, while of this number not more than a third were fit to do a twenty-mile trek at a better pace than a walk. Yet each, three weeks earlier, had started from the railway newly equipped with remounts.

[251]If any are sufficiently interested to cast about for a reason for the hopeless state of the columns in the Colony at this period, they may possibly find in the experiences of the brigade a solution of the remount question which has so puzzled the more intelligent students of the war. The column newly equipped at the railway was generally worse off for horse-flesh and less mobile than the force which had not been within reach of the Remount Department for months. The procedure was in this wise. The column commander struggled gasping into the haven of relief afforded by the railway. He had barely issued to his men and horses a full ration when the telegraph began to talk. Down came the brief little order from Pretoria, "You will entrain for Cypher Ghat without delay. Trains will reach you by three this afternoon." In vain would the column commander plead for rest for man and beast. The fiat had gone forth. All protest was met with a single reiteration of the original order, with perhaps the adjunct, "Remounts will be awaiting you to replace casualties." What chance had the horses which had been overridden and [252]under-fed for the last twelve days? Those which could hobble were thrust into close, dung-blocked trucks, and whirled away any distance from fifty miles to a thousand. Water they got when the railway officials saw fit to arrange the necessary halt in the necessary place, rest for them there was none. But the column commander who was new at the job could plume himself that he would be restocked and start with a new lease of life at his destination. Vain thought! He found awaiting him at the end of his journey either the sweepings of the country-side—such animals as had been rejected as unfitted for military service by marauding Boer and pushing column leader in turn, and finally collected by the zealous "crawler" and duly reported in the "weekly bag" as captured from the enemy. Or if sweepings were not available, he would find waiting for him absolutely soft and raw importations, which had cost the taxpayers £40 apiece a few weeks previously,—the one as useless for the purpose required as the other. Rejection by a not over-fastidious enemy disposes of the one; of the other it was as mad a proceeding as taking a horse straight off [253]grass and backing him to win you a stake at even weights with trained horses. The millions of the public money which lie wantonly strewed over the South African veldt would appal even the most phlegmatic of financiers. The waste in horse-flesh is inconceivable; and the man with the stiff upper lip who refused to realise that it takes gentle breaking to bring the troop-horses to the perfection which enables them to cover for six consecutive days thirty miles a-day with 20 stone on their backs, has added pence to the present burden of the income-tax. The taxpayer is naturally upset. He has cause. He seeks mental relief in philippics against the cavalry officer,—the man to whom he owes so much. He damns his intelligence and damns his breeding, and then, having railed sufficiently, pays cheerfully, with heavy self-satisfaction that some one has at least been put in his proper place, and that a lesson so necessary has not really been so dearly purchased at the price. Poor innocent fools! the British taxpayer brings to mind that dear fat smiling millionaire, denizen of a West End club, to whom every day impecunious fellow-members would propose a game of [254]picquet or écarté, well knowing that it was the quickest way in London to earn a certain £200. Your Commissions may sit upon the educational standard of your officers, upon the sequel to your own folly in remount purchase: but will your inquiry ever reach the foundations of this edifice that you have condemned? I think not. One or two scapegoats will satisfy the British public upon those few occasions when it rises up in a thirst for blood. Willingness to pay rather than interfere will do the rest. And the spirit of apathy which is characteristic of the nation, in spite of the occasional outbursts of interested indignation, will prevent a true disclosure of the horrid facts as long as the war is unfinished. Once a peace is ratified the national interest in both the present, past, and future state of its army will be as abruptly and effectually severed as the magazine charge in the Lee-Enfield rifle when the cut-off is snapped home, forgetful of the fact that our next enemy may not be as merciful as the Boer; that he will not stand by and reap no benefit from our failures; that in a few brief hours a situation may arise in which no wealth of bullion can [255]save us. It will take just one disaster such as this—a disaster which will carry annihilation with it—to cause the British nation too late to take just stock of its limitations. Then in grief it will remember that he whom it treated as a mad fakir was indeed a true prophet.

The state of the New Cavalry Brigade, as it wedged itself in between the two ghosts of mounted columns, was in itself an object-lesson. Those who have followed the interests of this little command through the foregoing chapters will have seen that it had not been called upon to make any exceptional effort to sap it of its reserve forces. In fact, it had simply been marched and countermarched along dusty tracks at the whim of a superior officer. Yet under this mild usage the column had arrived back at a base with 25 per cent of its animals useless and an equal proportion whose days of usefulness were numbered. The sole reason for this was the fact that the animals had never been trained to long distances in a trying climate with 20 stone on their backs. The care of the brigadier or the watchfulness of the squadron officers availed nothing when the [256]green remount was put to the twenty-mile test. But you will say, How, if this is really the case, was it to be avoided? An intelligent anticipation of events should have told those who started their campaign with the advantage of the three months' failure of their predecessors what would be the approximate remount requirements. The British nation would have backed the demands of this intelligent anticipation, not in thousands, but in millions, and by so doing would have saved not thousands but millions. If the original remount depots had been other than "Siberias" for incompetent officers from the outpost line, or if the recommendations of the senior cavalry and remount officers had been listened to, we should have had less of the saddling of raw horses straight from the train and ship,—less of the stupidity which expected them to do the work which can only be done by a system of gradual and careful training and acclimatisation. It is as suicidal and expensive to put green horses into the field as it is to put untrained men. Yet at this period of the war we were practising both these expedients, and wondering why the Burgher was not [257]subjugated, and why the income-tax steadily increased.

The stories of sinful waste and incompetent groping for a means out of the tangle do not connect themselves intimately with this history. But no doubt remains that the system which was at this period in practice was vicious in the extreme. In a word, the whole of the British mobile strength in South Africa was directly based on the railway communication. This gave a column at the utmost a twelve days' lease of life, which meant that the troops must keep within a six days' march of the permanent way or starve. This limited the area of effective operation; and while we were wasting our energy and horse-flesh against the enemy's raiders, the bulk of their resistance was calmly ploughing beyond the reach of castigation. The convoy may be slow and may be vulnerable, the fortified post may be isolated and invite attack; but as military expedients in a large country both are superior to the base-bound column.[37]

[258]The brigadier left the brigade-major to settle the column into its quarters, and taking the Intelligence officer with him, made straight for the hub of Hopetown's universe. The hotel and the telegraph-office stood close together. Outside the former a little scarlet flaglet fluttered, its double point showing that the general officer who sported it claimed divisional rank,—a quaint claim at this period of the war, when lieutenant-generals were parading the theatre at the head of little paarde kommandos[38] three to four hundred strong. The brigadier spotted the flag, and then edged off to the telegraph-office. "We will first make things straight with K. Then we will consult this new horror with the [259]oriflamme that we have stumbled into!" Three tired clerks, two soldiers and a civilian, were trying to cope with the telegraphic efforts of five columns. The brigadier dictated his message to the Intelligence officer. It was a bare announcement of arrival, duplicated to Pretoria and De Aar.

Telegraph Operator. "There is no chance of any private wires going through for at least forty-eight hours; post would be quicker!"

Brigadier. "Then you will just have to clear the line."

T. O. "Can only do that for general officers."

B. "That is all I ask you to do,—so here you are!"

T. O. "Beg pardon, sir; but are you a general,—you are not like most generals. Yes, sir, it's nice and short. I can get this off in about five minutes. They clear the line, of course, at De Aar; we are only working to De Aar. I have quite a lot of messages for you, sir; they have been coming all last night." (The operator handed out the bundle of telegraphic jetsam.)

[260]The telegrams contained the usual proportion of hysterical nonsense from the De Wet expert and various intelligence and departmental centres; also a direct order from the general at De Aar to proceed without delay to Orange River Station and there entrain for Jagersfontein Road in the Orange River Colony. This at least was satisfactory, as it meant without fail good-bye to the hated Karoo. The news telegram was interesting reading, though a little indefinite in its wording. In the light of subsequent knowledge the information which it conveyed was much as the brigadier had anticipated. De Wet, after the sack of Strydenburg, had doubled north,—in fact, had almost retraced his original line. He had thrown a feint up in the direction of Mark's Drift, and thus drawn the pursuit temporarily off the true line, but had as suddenly swung to the east. Here he had again been struck by the indefatigable Plumer, temporarily renovated and with sufficient steam up to take him a short spurt. That spurt was sufficient to rob De Wet of his last impedimenta, to cause him to bifurcate in his flight. Part of the [261]pursued rabble went north, half hurled itself across the Cape Government Railway in the vicinity of Paauwpan. Plumer's spurt was just too short to bring about the definite result required, and he crawled into Hopetown to further revive his energy. In the meantime it was learned from prisoners and other sources that the group of fugitives trying to cross the Orange River north of Hopetown was Judge Hertzog's and Pretorius's party. Brand had made the passage at Mark's Drift, while De Wet, with the ex-President, was still in the Colony heading for Philipstown. Then hope ran high. The Orange River was in flood, while stops were in front of and south of the harried guerilla. Thorneycroft and Henry in the vicinity of Colesburg; Crabbe and Henniker on his tail; Grenfell, Murray, and others strung out in an ever-decreasing circle! Swollen river in front, desperate Englishmen behind, what chance had the residue of the invaders now! But the brigadier shook his head as he pricked out the positions on the map. "There is no mention of troops moving down from the north. What does Napoleon say [262]about rivers as barriers in war?—he classes them as negotiable obstacles, after deserts and mountains, right low down on the scale. Flood or no flood, ole man De Wet will cross that river just wherever and whenever he pleases; and if we have no one north of it either to pick him up or to head him while crossing, he will get clear away, and we shall have let slip another opportunity, by crass stupidity and failure to make use of the very signal advantages which circumstances have placed in our way. Plumer and my brigands get to Orange River Station to-night. Even if they have truckage waiting for us, we shall not march clear of Jagersfontein Road until the day after to-morrow. That will give ole man De Wet twenty-four hours' clear lead. I must say that I cannot see the hand of genius in the fitting of this plan to the map. This is the line that both Plumer and I should take—Orange River Station, Ramah, Luckhoff, Fauresmith. One of us halt at Luckhoff; Kimberley send a column to Koffyfontein; Bloemfontein another to Petrusburg and Abramskraal; while Fauresmith and Jagersfontein form bases for [263]columns sent to them from Springfontein; and then with a consistent and strong line of outposts we might have stopped his main road north, although we should be too late to man the river. But, anyhow, I'll have a try at convincing them at headquarters that I am a better man outside than inside a cattle-truck. So here goes. Mr Intelligence, paper and ink and take it down, and mind it is to go in cipher!" The brigadier then roughly drew a comparison in the saving of time involved by a direct march upon Fauresmith from Orange River Station and transport by rail, closing the message with a promise to be in Fauresmith the second day after leaving the railway.

It then became a question of a square meal at the caravanserai. The concentration of five columns had taxed the capabilities of the little hostel beyond endurance. All that they could furnish was milk and butter. But they were prepared to cook any food that was brought, so with an effort it was possible to arrive at a meal. There was no lack of entertainment, however. One of the columns had sent out 300 men and a pompom in [264]pursuit of Hertzog's fugitives, and the force had just returned with quite a haul of prisoners. They had come across the rearmost of them as they were in the act of crossing the river in a rickety punt, which vessel had been scientifically rendered unseaworthy by a well-directed belt of pompom-shells. Examination of the bushes on the near bank of the river showed that dozens of Boers had literally gone to earth. The river approach was full of rain-fissures and water-cracks, and the men spent the whole morning actually bolting burghers from cover, much in the same manner as a pack of beagles is well used to aid sportsmen to shoot a rabbit-covert.

It was not until you found opportunity to see these prisoners that you realised what this war meant to these farmer guerillas, and the influence which the failure of De Wet's invasion must have made on the subsequent operations. Amongst the whole 200 prisoners that were brought in that day, there was only one man—a man who called himself Hertzog's secretary—who was completely dressed. The majority had neither coats nor boots; and their remaining costume was in the last stage [265]of decay. Nor had the inner man been nurtured any better than the outer. They were emaciated and drawn with hunger and hardship. They rose out of their holes with their hands above their heads like great gaunt ghosts with saucer eyes. They were in such a state that surrender brought to them no pangs of remorse. They welcomed it as a means to live, and their ravenous supplication for food was not the least pathetic setting to the scene. They are a strange paradox these people. One could not help admiring the patriotism—or is it magnetic power of their leaders?—which kept in the field, in spite of all its dismal horrors of death and suffering, men who had but to surrender to return to their share of the comfort of living. If it is true patriotism, then you feel inclined to raise your hat. But if it is only fear of the knout, then hanging is the best end you could wish the leaders, who are able to control such suffering, and who, in the hope of personal advancement, refuse to alleviate it. But what is more humiliating than anything else, is the realisation that these miserable creatures are an enemy able to keep the flower of England's [266]army in check, to levy a tax of six millions a-month upon this country, and render abortive a military reputation built upon unparalleled traditions. This is indeed a bitter reflection, a painful reminder that the advance of science has placed the athlete and the cripple almost upon an equality in armed encounter.

It was an interesting gathering that partook of dinner in the quaintly boarded little dining-room of the Hopetown tavern. Four column commanders and their staffs filled the tables, which betimes were the mess-boards of the bank clerks and shop-walkers of the village. The soldiers, however, had some right to be in temporary possession, since the viands were their own. The two little serving-maids, daughters of a Dutch proprietress, were alive to the unusual importance of their duties, and had carefully prepared for the part. Print dresses were dispensed with, and they stood arrayed in their Sabbath frocks, covered with the becoming apron-pinafore which the country affects, and with carefully braided hair. Quaint little maids—why should we quiz them?—they were there dressed and determined to do their best. At the first table sat a [267]middle-aged major-general, a man of kindly face and habit. As a soldier—a fierce, intrepid leader—can you not remember the day when he lay amongst the scrub of the Modder bank with his chest laid bare by a raking bullet, and refused to be carried to hospital,—even entreated the doctors to let him carry out the mad effort, worthy of a Marshal Ney, which had been intrusted to him, and which all but cost him his life. Yet, so strange is the complex nature of the Englishman, this man, whom the breath of war could rouse to a courage almost superhuman, spent his leisure in the toils of artistic photography, and evinced more demonstrative pleasure over a successful plate than in a battlement of arms made sweet in victory.

At the next table sat a leader of another kind, or rather a different development of the same type of quiet unassuming English gentleman,—the gallant, thrusting, never-tiring Plumer. Small spare man of dainty gait and finish, yet moulded in a clay which hitherto has shown no flaw in the rougher elements of the soldier. It is no inconsiderable tribute to his sterling qualities as a leader [268]that he gained both the confidence and devotion of the rough Bushboys from the Antipodes, with whom he was associated. But however dainty and unassuming the shell, it is the spirit which fashions the man, and he who would continue in the shade of Plumer's banner must ride with all the cunning he may possess to prove himself worthy of the lead he follows. At another table sits Pilcher, the man on wires. Hot-headed he may be, yet withal crafty in war: worthy representative of the race of young soldiers which the Nile has bred. Then there was our own brigadier, as buoyant in spirit and as light of heart as any of his ancestors who played the gallant in the Court of Versailles, yet possessing beneath the veneer of gaiety a steadfast tenacity of purpose, which favoured the quartering added from the north of the Tweed. The room was full of men—men who for eighteen solid months had been engaging in the stern realities of war. The leaders who had exercised the balance of life and death, the juniors who had looked a thousand dangers squarely in the face. If success in war was only made up in the excellence of fighting men, then [269]England could stand out pre-eminent. Unfortunately, success lies in business-soldiers plus fighting men. It is in her business-soldiers that England's weakness lies.

It is only when the intention is to do something desperate that one is able to appreciate the obstructive temperament of military officialdom. The whole system teems with "wait-a-bit" thorns; and in such rare cases when difficulties do not exist, some jack-in-office is certain to arrive with the sole object and intention of inventing them. Now, the brigadier had put forward a simple and rational plan,—so simple and rational that the lieutenant-general at De Aar had willingly acquiesced, for this general was at least a man to whom his juniors might look and be certain of support. But after the general there arose a pack of snarling juniors, whose only energy seemed to be expended in an endeavour to frustrate the plans of others. The brigade had orders to march by night the six miles which separate Hopetown from Orange River Station, but long before it took the road the departmental spirit of opposition had commenced to make itself felt.

[270]First came a "clear-the-line" message from the transport officer, ordering the brigadier to hand over his mule-transport to another column commander. It is true that he promised to re-equip him with mule-transport at the destination of his railway journey; but the brigadier had had experience of the director of transport's promises. This was an impediment which it was possible to ignore; but it was followed by another more serious. The supply people appeared to have been hurt on the score of the short notice which had been given to them, and raised a host of difficulties. But the climax was reached when the Intelligence Department volunteered the information that it would be useless for the brigade to apply for maps, as they had none in stock; but they added, "As a substitute we are sending the best local guide procurable."

The brigadier had met the first of these hindrances with equanimity, but the last burden upset the camel's load. "Did you ever see such fellows? they are bent on thwarting me every time. I shall ignore them right through; the only attention the man who has the audacity to offer me a low horse-thieving [271]local expert as the substitute for a gross of maps deserves is to be court-martialled and stamped out of existence on sight. You need not telegraph all that, Mr Intelligence; but you may send a message to the general in De Aar to inform him that, having received his orders, I shall leave no stone unturned to carry out the scheme he has sanctioned, in spite of local obstruction. That is to be the sense of the message, and it ought to cover any subsequent act of disobedience which we undertake. Don't make answers to any of these subordinate fry; we will just march at nine o'clock to-night to Orange River Station, raid the place of such rations as we can lay hands on, and then, maps or no maps, take off our caps to Cape Colony for ever."


It was just as well that the brigadier had made his own arrangements, for both Plumer and Pilcher forgathered at Orange River that night, and the stationmaster, with the bonhomie bred of a long period spent in disappointing everybody with whom he came in contact, informed each column commander in rotation that the best he could promise them was [272]truckage sufficient for one squadron on the following day, two squadrons perhaps on the second day, and the whole of the mounted troops ordered by rail certainly not before a week or ten days. We just ask you to make a short study of this situation. The episode which is here related was not a farce—far from it: it was a serious endeavour on the part of the British army in South Africa to capture or destroy a noted brigand called De Wet. A possibility of bringing about this desired result was certainly within view, and the British army was straining every nerve to avail itself of a unique opportunity. To the humble subaltern, who was but a microscopic atom of that huge British army, this herculean effort partook rather of the nature of burlesque than of serious war. But it was nothing to the burlesque which was shortly to be enacted on Orange River Station platform.

As day broke other columns concentrated on the station buildings, until the inartistic surroundings of the little centre became black with men and animals. In appearance it might well be likened to a swarm of bees in temporary possession of a window-frame. Amongst [273]the troops waiting for rolling stock was a wild company of over-sea Colonials—men of independent character and fine physique, who had already done their year in the country, and to whom the sight of a permanent way and the smell of a station-yard brought memories of homes in a distant land, and transports tossing on Table Bay, and a promise that had been made to them by some one, that they should return home the next time they touched the railway. Their dash after De Wet had been undertaken rather in the spirit of a favour. And now they were on the line again, rumour had it that their belated truckage had been ordered to convey them back to the Orange River Colony. They accepted this rumour as a breach of faith, and feeling ran high in the contingent—ran so high that it overlapped and swamped the tiny pillar of discipline which thirteen months of campaigning had built into the constitution of the corps. The climax was reached on the morning of the concentration at Orange River Station. The colonel commanding the over-sea Colonials stood chatting with our brigadier. We were waiting for the shoddy platform buffet to open its hospitable [274]doors, when suddenly we were aware of the whole of the Colonial contingent marching in correct files on to the platform. A full private was in command. He issued his orders clearly. "Halt!"—"Pile arms!"—"Stand clear!"—"Fall out!" And then a deputation of three advanced towards us. They saluted their colonel with all military punctiliousness, and stood as stiffly to attention as is possible with the irregular.

Colonial Colonel. "What does this mean, men?"

Spokesman. "If you please, sir, we have mutinied" (the supporting deputation gravely nodded their assent).

C. C. "The devil you have!—but do you realise what it means when you mutiny on active service?"

S. "Well, you see, sir, it is putting it rather strongly, perhaps, to say that we have mutinied. But you see, sir, our time is up, and we have determined not to go on the trek any more. Our last trek was a favour. We were promised that we should be sent home the next time we struck the railway, and we hold by this promise."

[275]C. C. "Men, don't be fools. Go back to your camp. You have no need to believe that faith will be broken with you. But think of the example you are setting to the rest of the troops here! Think of what the people at home will say! You don't realise what you are liable to for mutiny."

S. "Well, sir, we don't exactly mean this as mutiny. This is just a protest against being kept out here against our will and agreement. You will accept it, sir, in the spirit that it is given—a protest, sir!"

C. C. "Very good. Go back to your lines!"

The deputation saluted, returned to the fallen-out contingent, which gravely unpiled its arms and marched back to its lines, amid a little desultory cheering from some few by-standers who realised what was taking place.

The brigadier turned to the Colonial colonel and said, "Well, that is the quaintest attitude that I have ever seen taken up by a body of men. Do they often treat you to these protests?"

C. C. "Sometimes. They are children in many respects. I can tell you they need gentle handling. They have made their protest, and [276]for a week or so will be quite satisfied. I even fancy that I shall be able to get them to do yet another trek if the authorities insist; but it makes it devilish hard for us to deal with these fellows, when faith is so constantly broken with them. They are as quiet as mice when I get them away from the railway. But once they see metals they smell sea-water, and it upsets them. They are fine but quaint fellows!"

The brigadier acquiesced. He would have been just the man to have commanded these men. And he would have improved a situation such as the one we had just witnessed. Yet it would be impossible to overrate the delicacy of that situation. A tactless man, full of the power which long generations of military discipline has built round the sanctity of a commission, in a few short sentences would have converted the scene of incipient mutiny into open intractable rebellion. As it was, the mutiny was taken in the spirit in which it had been made, and terminated to the satisfaction of all concerned.[39]

[277]The New Cavalry Brigade became almost complete at Hopetown, as the brigadier was able to collect his last missing squadron of the 21st King's Dragoon Guards, which hitherto had been taking part in the De Wet hunt with another column. A portion of the Mount Nelson Light Horse, however, was still missing; but the brigadier did not worry about them, and felt himself complete, as he took the precaution to issue orders that he was about to proceed by rail to Jagersfontein Road. But, as the narrative of the next forty-eight hours is to show, the military system prevailing in South Africa was such that it was only by a miracle that the most sagacious of leaders were able to accomplish any exceptional result by strategy. The brigadier had schemed to bring about a result which could only be arrived at by the most rigid concealment of plan and direction.

It must be borne in mind that the Boers at this period of the campaign had the most perfect system of intelligence. There was not a district in the Transvaal or Orange River Colony which was not under the [278]command of a local commandant, who with a following of fifty to a hundred men maintained a system of observation-posts throughout the length and breadth of his district, and who apparently had the means of conveying to some central organisation early intelligence of the movement of every British column. This may appear to the casual observer as an enormous undertaking, but in reality it was nothing of the kind. It was absolutely essential to the Boer cause that a considerable portion of their less valuable fighting material should thus be distributed over the length and breadth of the guerilla area. Owing to the great distances to be traversed in South Africa, every Dutchman had a local knowledge of his own district which could never be acquired in a country of rapid communication such as England. To local men were apportioned the network of observation-hills in which the country abounds. They lived upon the hill-tops all day, and returned either to farms or other places of security during the night. Their method of inter-communication was either by Kaffirs or mounted messengers, and in this [279]way news could travel by relay as easily and rapidly as it is carried by a similar system amongst the natives of India. Any Kaffir will dog-trot ten miles in two hours; consequently without much effort Boer information would travel a hundred and twenty miles in twenty-four hours. Added to this, every woman remaining upon a farm was of the nature of an intelligence agent, and after the women had been removed, for the most part to the concentration camps, the majority of Kaffir kraals served the same purpose. It was this means of information which made the Boer resistance possible: it was to this system of espionage that De Wet owed the success of his meteor-like career.

The Intelligence centre at De Aar being unable to furnish the requisite maps, took upon itself to supply "the best local guide procurable." It is mainly to the services rendered by this local guide that De Wet owes his escape on this particular occasion. The brigadier was fully alive to the existence of the Boer local espionage; but it must be said with truth that he had not realised to what extent De Wet's clientèle included the [280]men who possessed the confidence of the De Wet expert and the intelligence faculty at De Aar. If he had realised this he would have been content to have made his dash, trusting to the almost supernatural instinct of the Tiger. As it was, to the general regret, the Tiger was allowed to sever his connection with the column, to be replaced by one of the many "sitters upon the fence" who have for months conduced to the prolongation of the war.

The latest information with regard to the movements of De Wet had been signalled by Haig, who appeared to hold the view that he had the arch-guerilla hemmed in against the unfordable flood of the Orange River in the immediate neighbourhood of the Colesberg waggon-bridge. Now the brigadier, as has already been shown, did not believe in the unfordability of rivers. Moreover, the Orange River in front of us was falling, and further information, which had been arrived at through a rather peculiar channel, furnished us with the details of a letter of instruction which had been sent by De Wet when at Strydenburg to Field-cornet [281]Botmann, then commanding the local commando in the Fauresmith district, instructing him to collect as many horses and Cape-carts as possible, and to keep them in readiness at Philippolis in order to expedite his (De Wet's) journey north. Basing his plans upon this information, the brigadier determined to place himself on the line Jagersfontein-Fauresmith just at the moment when De Wet halted to catch his breath at Philippolis. He would then detach half his force to cover his right, facing south, leaving it to Plumer or other troops despatched from the railway at Jagersfontein Road to cover and close his left flank. To frustrate the vigilance of Botmann's observation-posts it was the brigadier's intention to make Fauresmith by forced marches. It had to be considered that there was only a small margin in which it would be possible to arrive at Fauresmith with advantage. Too early an arrival would have warned and headed De Wet before the flank-detached column was in position to effectually co-operate; while dalliance on the line of march would have missed him altogether. It was a manœuvre which could not have been [282]successful without some element of luck, but which was destined to be rendered still more difficult by the co-operation of the local guide.

As it was, the man was not taken into the brigadier's confidence until he issued his marching orders to his force, a bare two hours before the column was destined to take the road. The guide had joined the command with all the pomp and dignity attaching to a following of five mounted native retainers. He was an Africander of a most marked type, and opened his connection with the Intelligence officer with the information that he was not an ordinary guide, that he only took his instructions from the officer commanding the column, and that he reported alone to him. The brigadier smiled at his pedantry, remarking that if he did his job it did not matter much to whom and by whom he made his reports.

In order to facilitate the early movement of the brigade, it had moved across the now historic railway-bridge at Orange River and camped in the Herbert district, with the report that Kimberley was its destination. [283]For the sake of precaution the brigadier had thrown out a strong outpost into the hilly country covering the road to Ramah. Shortly after midnight, the Intelligence officer was sent out with the final instructions to this outpost. As he stumbled amongst the rocks he saw in the dim light which the young moon diffused a mounted native moving along a track below him. The native would have remained unrecognised, as the distance was considerable, if his horse had not been a piebald of peculiar marking. The mounted native "had the legs of" the Intelligence officer; but as he disappeared in the shadows of night the Intelligence officer's apprehensions were allayed by hearing the man challenged by a picket from the outpost. In five minutes the Intelligence officer reached the picket to find the native gone, and the corporal in charge stated that the man had shown a pass signed by the Intelligence officer, Orange River Station. This hardly appeared to be satisfactory; but the corporal, like so many young British non-commissioned officers, had had no directions concerning native scouts and passes, and not being [284]trained to take upon himself precautionary responsibility, had been duly frightened and coerced by the scrawl of a hieroglyphic on a remnant of blue paper.

The Intelligence officer considered the whole affair with great suspicion, and when he returned to the headquarters bivouac he walked down to the new guide's entourage and took stock of his "boys" and animals. One of the five "boys" was missing, also a piebald pony which had caught his eye earlier in the day. The Intelligence officer held his peace, but, armed with this information, determined to watch future developments, and flung himself down on the roadside to snatch half an hour's sleep before the forward march should commence.

It was the brigadier's intention to seize Luckhoff—a little hamlet situated half-way between Orange River and Fauresmith—that morning by a coup de main. To accomplish this he detached half his force without baggage, under the command of the colonel of the 21st, to move as rapidly as circumstances would permit, and to occupy and hold the town until he himself arrived with the main [285]body later in the day. The newly acquired guide was detailed to accompany the advance column. By nine o'clock in the morning this advanced column was in position to bear down upon the little prairie township. The colonel of the 21st, well versed in the tactics best suited to surprise a village on the open plain, extended a squadron into a horn-like formation, and galloped, as he imagined, to the surprise of the inhabitants. The sequel was very different to what had been expected. Save for women, the village was deserted, while from the high ground and hills to the north-east, a fully prepared posse from Botmann's commando opened a heavy rifle-fire on those cavalrymen who had been detached to occupy the farther approaches. Our Intelligence guide, who by some means had disappeared during the later progress of the advance, was at once in evidence as soon as the town was entered. He rode straight as a die to a small store which ornamented the main street. Ultimately it proved that he was the owner of this store.

The first comment of the intelligent reader will be that the action of the guide was [286]clumsy, both in design and execution, and that a column thus duped deserves to meet with ill success. The guide's action was undoubtedly clumsy, but it must be remembered that he had had long experience of the British: he knew as well as every other man of similar calibre in South Africa how far he could afford to play with their forbearance. As far as the staff of the New Cavalry Brigade was concerned, once the guide was admitted to the confidence of the general the possibility of checking his further machinations was beyond their reach. The fault lay with those who had given him his credentials. Yet there was no proof against the man: he allowed that the store was his, he admitted that he had sent one of his natives on ahead of the column, claimed that he had permission thus to use the native, who, he assured us, was one of the most trusted and loyal scouts that the British had. For what reason had he sent him? The answer was simple enough. He had only sent him with a message to the man who was looking after his store, with instructions not to open it after daybreak lest it should be looted by friend [287]and foe alike. It was a pity, as it subsequently proved, that we failed to make him produce this loyal boy.

The only remark in the way of comment made by the brigadier was to the effect that "One only learns by experience." He refused, and doubtless rightly, to accede to the wishes of others on his staff that the man should be executed out of hand. He promised to send him back to Cape Colony, where, doubtless, he would give a satisfactory explanation, and return again to some position of trust and honour in the British service.

People in England, and those who have had experience of this extraordinary campaign, will never realise the extent to which the British army in South Africa has reposed confidence in knaves and scoundrels. For one man that may have been shot or hanged, there will have been a hundred who have gained the confidence of the British to betray it either to their own use or that of the enemy. No one could ever know or assess the extent of the knavery which has arisen, flourished, and grown fat in this long-protracted war. And what a field for sharps [288]and knaves! Was not the control of the whole country in the hands of straightforward and fair-thinking English officers,—men whose word was their bond, and who never thought to distrust their fellow-men, until their fellow-men thrust their barefaced iniquities upon them. Believe me, that under the Southern Cross it is not the Dutch who are vile.

But although we could not hope now to fall upon the arch-guerilla with the full weight of first surprise, yet from the nature of the situation in which he had been engaged during the last three weeks his theatre and resources were of necessity circumscribed. The situation even yet presented possibilities, and the brigadier settled to remain longer in Luckhoff than he had originally intended, sending a patrol to reconnoitre the Orange River. This patrol met with some success. It was commanded by the same pessimistic subaltern who had commanded the advance-guard from Richmond Road. Again it was his fortune to chaperon the Intelligence officer in a quest for information. It was a fifteen-mile ride to the nearest portion of the river, consequently it was late in the afternoon when [289]the patrol entered the hilly tracts of country which covered the immediate approaches to the yellow stream. As the advance-guard of the party topped a little nek, they rode into a group of five burghers. The British dragoons had the advantage, as the burghers had only that moment emerged from the river, which they had crossed with the aid of rafts manufactured from drift-wood and rushes. Not a shot was fired, and the men surrendered gladly the only two rifles remaining to them.

One of the most curious traits in the burgher character has been displayed in the manner of his capitulation. He will always tell you that he is pleased to surrender, that it is an end he has been longing and praying for for months, and yet until the actual moment which necessitates surrender he will strain every nerve to avoid capture, will suffer every privation and hardship; endure hunger, thirst, disease, and sickness, rather than walk the few miles which separate him from the British outposts. Take the case of these men who were just captured: after a most harassing campaign, they had [290]gone to the risk and pain of crossing a rapid river in full flood; having crossed at infinite peril, they welcomed the advent of the hostile patrol which deprived them of their liberty, and far from making expression of resentment, availed themselves of the opportunity to surrender, in an attitude which ill disguised their eagerness.

Moreover, they were loquacious. They had crossed the railway at Paauwpan with the remnant of De Wet's fugitive commando. In the neighbourhood of Philipstown the guerilla had ordered a general break-up of the whole of his remaining commando. At certain points along the Orange River it was said that boats were hidden for the purpose of effecting a crossing. But this particular party, having been unable to find one of these boats, and having been shot at by various patrols from pursuing columns, had effected the passage of the river in their own original way but to fall into our hands. As far as De Wet and President Steyn were concerned, these men professed to be able to speak with authority. Reduced to a single Cape cart, they had determined to cross at [291]Botha's Drift. Their crossing was to have been covered by a commando collected by Botmann at Philippolis, and they themselves, in common with all the dispersed burghers, had orders to concentrate within four days at Philippolis, where supplies, horses, and ammunition would be awaiting them. All this, as it coincided with previous knowledge, was valuable information, and the patrol hurried to make the return journey to Luckhoff.



[35] Jocular term borrowed from the Dutch for small British columns.

[36] Dutch village.

[37] It is interesting to note that eventually this reasoning was brought home to the direction of operations in South Africa. After practically a year of the unsatisfactory groping referred to in the text, the conception of the blockhouse system enabled mounted troops to operate far into the vital interior of the country without returning to the railway. It must be understood that the main use of the blockhouse-line was not to stretch an impassable chevaux-de-frise from point to point, but to furnish a series of posts, which ensured the safety of the convoys that followed their trend. By this means it was possible to keep columns operating in the interior supplied with food and forage. So much so, that towards the end many columns had not been near a town or railway for weeks. The conception of the "drives," which ultimately brought the peace movement to a head, was an afterthought, which is commonly attributed in South Africa to the sagacity of that intrepid and versatile young cavalry leader, Colonel Mike Rimington.

[38] Dutch mounted columns.

[39] This very contingent continued to serve with distinction for quite a considerable period after the little episode narrated above.