Print
"Let us admit it fairly,

As business people should,
We have had no end of a lesson:
It will do us no end of good."
KIPLING.

On June 27 I left Johannesburg under the escort of Major Bobby White, who had kindly promised to see me safely as far as Cape Town. We travelled in a shabby third-class carriage, the only one on the train, which was merely composed of open trucks. Our first long delay was at Elandsfontein, practically still in the Rand District. There the officer in charge came up with the pleasing intelligence that the train we were to join had broken down, and would certainly be four hours late; so we had to get through a very weary wait at this most unattractive little township, whose only interesting features were the distant chimneys and unsightly shafts of the Simmer and Jack and the Rose Deep Mines, and far away, on the horizon, the little white house, amid a grove of trees, which had been Lord Roberts's headquarters barely a month ago, and from which he had sent the summons to Johannesburg to surrender. All around, indeed, was the scene of recent fighting, and various polite transport officers tried to while away the tedium of our enforced delay by pointing out various faint ridges, and explaining that there the Gordons had made their splendid charge, or, again, that farther back General French had encountered such a stubborn resistance, and so on, ad libitum. In response I gazed with enthusiastic interest, but the flat, hideous country, which guards its deeply buried treasure so closely, seemed so alike in every direction, and the operations of the victorious army covered so wide an area, that it was difficult to make a brain picture of that rapid succession of feats of arms. At the station itself the "Tommys" buzzed about like bees, and the officers were having tea or dinner, or both combined, in the refreshment-room. One overheard scraps of conversation, from a subaltern to his superior officer: "A capital bag to-day, sir. Forty Mausers and ten thousand rounds of ammunition." Then someone else remarked that a railway-train from the South passed yesterday, riddled with bullets, and recounted the marvellous escape its occupants had had, which was not encouraging in view of our intended journey over the same route. A young man in uniform presently entered with a limp, and, in answer to inquiries, said his wounded leg was doing famously, adding that the bullet had taken exactly the same course as the one did not six weeks ago—only then it had affected the other knee; "so I knew how to treat it, and I am off to the Yeomanry Hospital, if they will have me. I only left there a fortnight ago, and, by Jove! it was like leaving Paradise!" Another arrival came along saying the Boers had received a proper punishing for their last depredations on the railway, when De Wet had brought off his crowning coup by destroying the mail-bags. But this gentleman had hardly finished his tale when a decided stir was observable, and we heard a wire was to hand saying the same De Wet was again on the move, and that a strong force of men and guns were to leave for the scene of action by our train to-night. At this juncture, seeing there was no prospect of any immediate departure, I installed myself comfortably with a book in the waiting-room, and was so absorbed that I did not even notice the arrival of a train from Heidelberg, till the door opened, and my nephew, the Duke of Marlborough, looked in, and we exchanged a surprised greeting, being totally unaware of each other's whereabouts. Except for meeting Winston in Pretoria, I had not seen the face of one of my relations for more than a year, but so many surprising things happen in wartime that we did not evince any great astonishment at this strange and unexpected meeting. In answer to my inquiries as to what brought him there, he told me he was returning to Pretoria with his temporarily incapacitated chief, General Ian Hamilton, who was suffering from a broken collar-bone, incurred by a fall from his horse. Expecting to find the General in a smart ambulance carriage, it was somewhat of a shock to be guided to a very dilapidated old cattle-truck, with open sides and a floor covered with hay. I peeped in, and extended on a rough couch in the farther corner, I perceived the successful General, whose name was in everybody's mouth. In spite of his unlucky accident, he was full of life and spirits, and we had quite a long conversation. I have since often told him how interesting was his appearance, and he, in reply, has assured me how much he was impressed by a blue bird's-eye cotton dress I was wearing, the like of which he had not seen since he left England, many months before. His train soon rumbled on, and then we had a snug little dinner in the ladies' waiting-room that the Station-Commandant, a gallant and hospitable Major, had made gay with trophies, photographs, and coloured pictures out of various journals. From a deep recess under his bed he produced an excellent bottle of claret, and the rest of the dinner was supplied from the restaurant.

The short African winter's day had faded into a blue and luminous night, resplendent with stars, and still our belated train tarried. However, the situation was improved, for later advices stated that the Boers had cleared off from the vicinity of the railway-line, and that we should surely leave before midnight. All these rumours certainly added to the excitement of a railway-journey, and it occurred to me how tame in comparison would be the ordinary departure of the "Flying Scotsman," or any other of the same tribe that nightly leave the great London termini.

At length, with many a puff and agonized groan from the poor little undersized engine, we departed into the dim, mysterious night, which hourly became more chill, and which promised a sharp frost before morning. As we crawled out of the station, our kind military friends saluted, and wished us, a little ironically, a pleasant journey. When I was about to seek repose, Major White looked in, and said: "Sleep with your head away from the window, in case of a stray shot"; and then I turned down the light, and was soon in the land of dreams.

The much-dreaded night passed quite quietly, and in the morning the carriage windows were thickly coated with several degrees of frost. The engines of the Netherlands Railway, always small and weak, were at that time so dirty from neglect and overpressure during the war, that their pace was but a slow crawl, and uphill they almost died away to nothing. However, fortunately, going south meant going downhill, and we made good progress over the flat uninteresting country, which, in view of recent events, proved worthy of careful attention. Already melancholy landmarks of the march of the great army lay on each side of the line in the shape of carcasses of horses, mules, and oxen. Wolvehoek was the first stop. Here blue-nosed soldiers descended from the railway-carriages in varied and weird costumes, making a rush with their billies[40] for hot water, wherewith to cook their morning coffee, cheerily laughing and cracking their jokes, while shivering natives in blankets and tattered overcoats waited hungrily about for a job or scraps of food. After leaving Wolvehoek, we entered on Commandant De Wet's hunting-ground and the scene of his recent exploits. There, at almost every culvert, at every ganger's house, were pickets of soldiers, all gathered round a crackling fire at that chill morning hour; and at every one of these posts freshly constructed works of sandbags and deep trenches were in evidence to denote that their sentry work was no play, but grim earnest.

We next crossed the Rhenoster Spruit, and passed the then famous Rhenoster position, so formidable even to the unskilled eye, and where my military friends told me the Boers would have given much trouble, had it not been for the two outspread wings of the Commander-in-Chief's army. A little farther on, the deviation line and the railway-bridge were pointed out as one of the many triumphs of engineering skill to be seen and marvelled at on that recently restored line. The achievements of these lion-hearted engineers could not fail to impress themselves even on a civilian. Many amongst them were volunteers, who had previously occupied brilliant positions in the great mining community in Johannesburg, and whose brains were the pride of a circle where intellectual achievements and persevering resource commanded at once the greatest respect and the highest remuneration. Some of these latter had family ties besides their considerable positions, but they gladly hastened to place their valuable services at the disposal of their Queen, and, in conjunction with the regular Royal Engineers, were destined to find glory, and in many cases death, at their perilous work. The task of the engineers is probably scarcely realized by people who have not seen actual warfare. We do not read so frequently of their doings as of those of their gallant colleagues on foot or on horse; but soldiers know that neither the genius of the Generals nor the intrepidity of the men could avail without them; and as the scouts are called the eyes, so might the engineers, both regular and volunteer, be termed the hands and feet, of an advancing force. The host sweeps on, and the workers are left with pickaxe and shovel, rifles close at hand, to work at their laborious task loyally and patiently, while deeds of courage and daring are being done and applauded not many miles away from them. This particular Rhenoster bridge was destroyed and rebuilt no less than three times up to the date of which I write, and the third time was only ten days previously, when Christian De Wet had also worked havoc among the mail-bags, the only cruel thing attributed to that commander, respected both by friends and foes. The sad, dumb testimony of this lamented misfortune was to be seen in the shape of thousands of mutilated envelopes and torn letters which covered the rails and the ground beyond—letters which would have brought joy to many a lonely heart at the front. It was really heartbreaking to behold this melancholy remnant of 1,500 mail-bags, and, a little farther on, to see three skeleton trucks charred by fire, which told how the warm clothing destined for the troops perished when De Wet and his burghers had taken all they needed. Many yarns were related to me about the chivalry of this farmer-General, especially respecting the mail-bags, and how he said that his burghers should not make fun of the English officers' letters, and therefore that he burnt them with his own hands. Another anecdote was remarkable—namely, that of an officer searching sadly among the heap of debris for some eagerly expected letter, and who came across an uninjured envelope directed to himself, containing his bank-book from Messrs. Cox and Sons, absolutely intact and untouched. It can only be conjectured whether he would as soon have known it in ashes.

On arriving in the vicinity of Kroonstadt, the most risky part of the journey was over, and then a wonderfully novel scene unfolded itself as we crawled over a rise from the desolate, barren country we had been traversing, and a tented city lay in front of us. Anyway, such was its appearance at a first glance, for white tents stretched far away east and west, and appeared to swamp into insignificance the unpretentious houses, and even a fairly imposing church-spire which lay in the background. I had never seen anything like this vast army depôt, and examined everything with the greatest attention and interest. Huge mountains of forage covered by tarpaulin sheets were the first things to catch my eye; then piles upon piles of wooden cases were pointed out as "rations"—that mysterious term which implies so much and may mean so little; again, there was a hillock of wicker-covered bottles with handles which puzzled me, and which were explained as "cordials" of some kind. Powerful traction-engines, at rest and in motion, next came into sight, and weird objects that looked like lifeboats mounted on trucks, but which proved to be pontoons—strange articles to perceive at a railway-station. Then we passed a vast concourse of red-cross tents of every description, proclaiming a hospital. As far as outward appearances went, it looked most beautifully arranged in symmetrically laid-out streets, while many of the marquees had their sides thrown back, and showed the patients within, either in bed or sitting about and enjoying the breeze and the rays of a sun never too hot at that time of year. "How happy and comfortable they look!" was my remark as we left them behind. Someone who knew Kroonstadt said: "Yes, they are all right; but the Scotch Hospital is the one to see if you are staying long enough—spring-beds, writing-tables, and every luxury." I was sorry time admitted of no visit to this establishment or to the magnificent Yeomanry Hospital at Deelfontein, farther south, to which I shall have occasion to allude in a later chapter. This last establishment was, even at that early stage of the war, a household word among the soldiers at the front, a dearly longed-for Mecca amongst the sick and wounded.

Our train had come to an abrupt standstill, and, on looking out, the line appeared so hopelessly blocked that the only way of reaching the station and lunch appeared to be on foot. We walked, therefore, upwards of half a mile, undergoing many perils from shunting engines, trains undecided whether to go on or to go back, and general confusion. It certainly did not look as if our train could be extricated for hours, but it proved there was method in this apparent muddle, and we suffered no delay worth speaking of. The station was densely packed with Staff officers and soldiers. Presently someone elbowed a way through the crowd to make way for the General, just arrived from Bloemfontein. A momentary interest was roused as an elderly, soldierly gentleman, with white hair and a slight figure, passed out of sight into one of the officials' rooms, and then we joined the throng trying to get food in the overtaxed refreshment-room. We had some interesting conversation with the officer in command of the station, and learnt how the Kroonstadt garrison were even then living in the midst of daily alarms from De Wet or his followers; added to these excitements, there was a colossal amount of work to be got through in the way of supplying Pretoria with food, by a line liable to be interrupted, and in coping with the task of receiving and unloading remounts, which were arriving from the South in large numbers. I saw some of these poor animals packed nine in a truck, marvellously quiet, and unmindful of strange sights and sounds, and of being hurled against each other when the locomotive jerked on or came to a stop. They were in good condition, but their eyes were sad and their tails were woefully rubbed. After seeing Kroonstadt Railway-station, I realized that the work of a Staff officer on the lines of communication was no sinecure.

Marvellous to relate, in the early afternoon we found our train in the station, and, climbing into our carriage once more, we proceeded on our road without delay, congratulating ourselves on our good fortune in not being held up at Kroonstadt, as had been the fate of many travellers going south. Immediately south of Kroonstadt we crossed the Vaal River, with its fine high-level bridge reduced to atoms by dynamite. This had given the engineers another opportunity to display their skill by a clever deviation of a couple of miles in length, winding down almost to the water-level, and then serenely effecting the crossing by a little wooden bridge, from which its ruined predecessor was visible about a quarter of a mile up the stream. Darkness and approaching night then hid the landscape. That evening we were told we need have no fears, for we were practically out of the dangerous zone. We dined comfortably in our compartment, and I heard many more reminiscences of the advance from two travelling companions who had taken part in it. Suddenly in the next compartment a party of Canadian officers commenced singing part-songs with real musical talent. We relapsed into silence as we heard the "Swanee River" sung more effectively than I have ever heard it before or since, and it reminded me that we, too, were going home. Presently we found ourselves joining in the chorus of that most touching melody, "Going back to Dixie," greatly to the delight of our sociable and talented neighbours. Daylight next morning brought us to Bloemfontein and civilization, and what impressed me most was the fact of daily newspapers being sold at a bookstall, which sight I had not seen for many months. On arriving at Cape Town, I was most hospitably entertained at Groot Schuurr by Colonel Frank Rhodes, in the absence of his brother. This mansion had been a convalescent home for many officers ever since the war began. There I passed a busy ten days in seeing heaps of friends, and I had several interviews with Sir Alfred Milner, to whom events of the siege and relief of Mafeking were of specially deep interest. I gave him as a memento a small Mauser bullet mounted as a scarf-pin, and before leaving for England I received from him the following letter:

"GOVERNMENT HOUSE,
"CAPE TOWN,
"November 7, 1900.

"DEAR LADY SARAH,

"How very kind of you to think of giving me that interesting relic of Mafeking! It will indeed revive memories of anxiety, as well as of the intensest feeling of relief and thankfulness that I have ever experienced.

"Hoping we shall meet again when 'distress and strain are over,'

"I am,
"Yours very sincerely,
"ALFRED MILNER."

Much of my time was also occupied in corresponding with Mafeking about the distribution of the fund which was being energetically collected in London by my sister, Lady Georgiana Curzon. Many weeks before we were relieved I had written to Lady Georgiana, then hard at work with the organization of the Yeomanry Hospital, suggesting to her to start a relief fund for the inhabitants of Mafeking. It had all along seemed to me that these latter deserved some substantial recognition and compensation beyond what they could expect from the Government, for damage done to their homes and their shops, and for the utter stagnation of the trade in the town during the siege. The nurses, the nuns and their convent, were also worthy objects for charity. This latter residence, but lately built, and including a nicely decorated chapel with many sacred images, had been, as I have said, practically destroyed; and the Sisters had borne their part most nobly, in nursing the sick and wounded, while many were suffering in health from the privations they had undergone. In response to my appeal, Lady Georgiana inserted the following letter in the Times just before the news of the Relief reached England:

"20, CURZON STREET, W.,
"May 11.

"SIR,

"I venture to address an appeal to the people of the United Kingdom, through the columns of your paper, on behalf of the inhabitants of Mafeking. Nothing but absolute knowledge of their sufferings prompts me to thus inaugurate another fund, and one which must come in addition to the numerous subscriptions already started in connection with the South African War. I admit the generous philanthropy of our country has been evinced to a degree that is almost inconceivable, and I hesitate even now in making this fresh appeal, but can only plead as an excuse the heartrending accounts of the sufferings of Mafeking that I have received from my sister, Lady Sarah Wilson.

"The last mail from South Africa brought me a letter from her, dated March 3. In it she implores me to take active measures to bring before the generous British public the destitute condition of the nuns, refugees, and civilians generally, in Mafeking. She writes with authority, having witnessed their sufferings herself, and, indeed, having shared equally with them the anxieties and privations of this prolonged siege. Her letter describes the absolute ruin of all the small tradespeople, whose homes are in many cases demolished. The compensation they will receive for damaged goods will be totally inadequate to cover their loss. Years must pass ere their trade can be restored to the proportions of a livelihood. Meanwhile starvation in the immediate future lies before them. The unfortunate Sisters in the convent have for weeks hardly had a roof over their heads, the Boer shells having more or less destroyed their home. In consequence, their belongings left intact by shot or shell have been ruined by rain. The destruction of their small and humble properties, in addition to their discomfort, has added to their misery; and yet no complaining word has passed their lips, but they have throughout cheerfully and willingly assisted the hospital nurses in their duties, always having smiles and encouraging words for the sick and wounded.

"Sitting at home in our comfortable houses, it is hard to realize the actual sufferings of these besieged inhabitants of Mafeking. My letter tells me that for months they have not slept in their beds, and although no opposition to the Boer forces in the first instance would have saved their town, their properties, and in many cases their lives, yet they one and all bravely and nobly 'buckled to,' and stood by that gallant commander, Baden-Powell. Loyalty was their cry, and freedom and justice their household gods. Have not their courage and endurance thrilled the whole world? I feel I need not ask forgiveness for issuing yet this one more appeal. It comes last, but is it least? A handful of soldiers, nearly all colonials, under a man who must now rank as a great and tried commander, have for six months repelled the Boer attacks. Could this small force have for one moment been a match for the well-equipped besiegers if the inhabitants had not fought for and with the garrison? Some worked and fought in actual trenches; others demonstrated by patient endurance their cool and courageous determination never to give in. Would it not be a graceful recognition of their courage if, on that glorious day, which we hope may not be far distant, when the relief of Mafeking is flashed across thousands of miles to the 'heart of the Empire,' we could cable back our congratulations on their freedom, and inform Mafeking that a large sum of money is ready to be placed by this country for the relief of distress amongst the Sisters, refugees, and suffering civilians of the town?

"I feel I shall not ask in vain, but that our congratulations to Mafeking will take most material form by generous admirers in the United Kingdom.

"Subscriptions will be received by Messrs. Hoare and Co., bankers, Fleet Street, E.C.

"I remain,
"Your obedient servant,
"GEORGIANA CURZON."

The fund had reached unhoped-for proportions. In our most optimistic moments we did not expect to collect more than two or three thousand pounds, but subscriptions had poured in from the very commencement, and the grand amount of £29,267 was finally the total contributed. This sum was ably administered by Colonel Vyvyan of the Buffs, who had been Base-Commandant of Mafeking during the siege. He was assisted by a committee, and the principal items allocated by these gentlemen were as follows:

£
Widows and orphans                      6,536
Refugees                                      4,630
Town relief                                   3,741
Seaside fund                                 2,900
Churches, convent, schools, etc.    2,900
Wounded men                               2,245
Small tradesmen                           1,765
Hospital staff, nuns, etc.              1,115
Colonel Plumer's Rhodesian column, etc.  1,000

Lady Georgiana Curzon's eloquent appeal proved to be the salvation of many a family in Mafeking.

The popularity of the fund was enormously helped by the interest of the then Prince and Princess of Wales, now our King and Queen, in the town and in the assistance of the same. This interest was evinced by the following letters, given to me later by my sister:

"TREASURER'S HOUSE,
"YORK
"June 20, 1900.

MY DEAR LADY GEORGIE.

"The Princess and I thank you very much for sending your sister's letters for us to read. They are most interesting, and admirably written. She has certainly gone through experiences which ought to last her a lifetime! If the papers are correct in stating that you start on Saturday for Madeira to meet her, let me wish you bon voyage.

"Ever yours very sincerely,
"(Signed) ALBERT EDWARD."

The Princess of Wales had already written as follows:

"MY DEAR GEORGIE,

"I saw in yesterday's Times your touching appeal for poor, unfortunate, forsaken Mafeking, in which I have taken the liveliest interest during all these months of patient and brave endurance. I have therefore great pleasure in enclosing £100 for the benefit of the poor nuns and other inhabitants. I hope very soon, however, they will be relieved, and I trust poor sister Sarah will be none the worse for all she has gone through during her forced captivity. Many thanks for sending me that beautifully drawn-up report of your Yeomanry Hospital. How well you have explained everything! Hoping to meet soon,

"Yours affectionately,
"(Signed) ALEXANDRA."[41]

Some fourteen months after my return home a Gazette appeared with the awards gained during the early part of the war, and great was my delight to find I had been selected for the coveted distinction of the Royal Red Cross. The King had previously nominated Lady Georgiana Curzon and myself to be Ladies of Grace of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, which entitles its members to wear a very effective enamel locket on a black bow; but, next to the Red Cross, the medal which I prize most highly is the same which the soldiers received for service in South Africa, with the well-known blue and orange striped ribbon. This medal was given to the professional nurses who were in South Africa, but I think I was, with one other exception, the only amateur to receive it, and very unworthy I felt myself when I went to St. James's Palace with all the gallant and skilful sisterhood of army nurses to share with them the great honour of receiving the same from His Majesty in person.

FOOTNOTES:

[40]

Small kettles.

[41]

I am allowed to reproduce the foregoing letters by the gracious permission of Their Majesties the King and Queen.

Parent Category: Books
Category: Wilson: South African memories
Hits: 2052