When I arrived at Modder River Camp, on February 17th, the guns were being hauled back from the hills into camp, tents were being struck, and waggon transport organised. The plain was a cloud of hot, whirling sand that shrouded near objects as closely as a fog, but, instead of the damp coldness of a fog, the plain was radiating heat that sent the thermometer inside one's tent up to 135 degrees. The place that a few days before had been resounding with artillery was now silent and (by comparison) deserted; buck waggons took the place of gun carriages, and the ambulance cart carried mails from home. One thought of Modder River as being surely at "the front," but here was the place, here were the troops, the guns, the hospitals, the sand-enveloped cemetery, and yet one seemed to be no nearer than before to actual war. As for news, there was less even than at Cape Town. A few telegrams, days old, fluttered from the notice-board, and in at headquarters I found that we who had been sixty hours on the journey from Cape Town were hailed as newsbearers. There was a press censor, yet one could not send press telegrams; headquarters had moved on to Jacobsdaal; telegrams must go through headquarters, and the wire to Jacobsdaal was only to be used for military purposes. This was something like a block, so Mr. Amery, of the Times, and I, resolved to ride over to Jacobsdaal and see if we could get any news.
We crossed the Riet and Modder drifts, and passed over the island where the shells and bullets had been singing so shrilly on the day of the big fight. When we passed the birds were singing instead, sending down with the cooing pigeons a chorus from the trees. No one could tell us whether or not the twelve miles to Jacobsdaal were free from the enemy; people thought so, but they were not quite sure. So we rode along, observing the dry veldt not without interest, but the lonely road heaved up and down over the plain and revealed little sign of human occupation. Once we passed a convoy carrying stores to the front, and at about the eighth mile a little Boer camp of about a dozen tents, all deserted, and apparently in haste, for there were half-emptied tins of provisions and a few cooking utensils scattered about, and a dead horse lay by the roadside. The heat was very great, and was only supportable when one kept a drenched handkerchief under one's hat. Indeed, officers who had come straight out from India protested that they never felt there anything like the heat of that South African drought.
Jacobsdaal, a little white town or village near the river, appeared at last from a ridge of the plain. It contained an inn, and the inn contained cups of tea—a fact in connection with Jacobsdaal that I shall long remember. In about an hour we were ready to look about a little, but at headquarters we could only learn that the front had again moved forward. We could not advance without transport, and we could get no quarters, so we lay down in a stony field under the stars, and made a poor shift at sleeping through a concert of complaining oxen and cocks cheering all night long, with an undertone of rumbling wheels on the distant road.
Next morning early I rode back to Modder, where I collected with difficulty two sorry but useful nags and a Cape cart. On my way out I passed a sentry, who brought me up with the usual cry, "Halt! who goes there?"
"Friend," said I.
"Advance, friend, and give the countersign."
Now I did not know the countersign, and I had to tell him so. The private soldier is sometimes zealous and often stupid, and occasionally both; and in the pause that followed my answer I heard the click of his rifle. In that second of time I remembered a story which I had heard the day before of a sentry at Modder, who, when the guard came up in the dark to relieve him, made the usual challenge. "It's only us, old man," said the sergeant. "None of your blooming us," said the sentry, and shot the sergeant dead.
However the sentry was soon persuaded, and when I passed the outpost, the sentry who should really have stopped me and examined my passport treated me as a field-officer and presented arms, so I rode away back to the dust of Modder. There I collected as much forage as possible, and the next day rode back with my caravan to Jacobsdaal. Once more there was a block. The front forty miles away; no more forage, no rations even; and I starved officially, but was entertained privately by the commandant. The front was reaching away forward along the road to Bloemfontein; and as telegrams had to be censored there and handed in at Modder River, fifty miles away, and as I had no despatch riders, I decided that the game was up on this line. A dose of fever helped my decision, and held me afterwards at Modder when great things were happening at Paardeberg. But for the day during which I stayed in Jacobsdaal I studied the little town and its alien inhabitants.
Jacobsdaal stands four-square on the northern bank of the Riet River, eleven miles east-south-east from Modder; and the manner of its occupation, as described to me by General Wavell (who captured it on the 15th of February and remained in it as commandant), seems to have been surprisingly neat and effectual. General Chermside, commanding the 14th Brigade, left Enslin on the 11th and marched to Ramdam, where he was joined by General Wavell, commanding the 15th Brigade, who had moved from Graspan. From Ramdam the two brigades marched almost due east to Dekiel's Drift, which they were delayed in crossing during the whole of the 13th. They started again on the next evening and made a night march to Wegdraai, where they arrived at four o'clock on the morning of the 15th. An officer of the North Staffordshire Regiment told me that he never saw anything so impressive as that night march. The horizon was level all round like the sea, and all night long it was alive with streams of lightning that lighted up the plain with the brigade crawling across it through the thunder. On the 15th General Wavell's brigade was detached, and at midday started to march upon Jacobsdaal. The brigade was strengthened by about seventy men of the C.I.V. (who acted as scouts) and by a battery of artillery. The North Staffordshires acted as advance guard, the South Wales Borderers and the Cheshire Regiment formed the main body, and the East Lancashires brought up the rear—half a battalion as reserves and half as rear-guard with the baggage.
The position was an admirable one for the enemy. General Wavell had the town ahead and the river on the left parallel with his line of march; and as he approached, the Boers (about 400 strong) opened a brisk fire on his flank from the river-bed. The fire was directed at the C.I.V.'s, who were advancing on the right bank of the river; but it had a double objective, since what missed the C.I.V.'s had a fair chance of finding the Staffordshires, who were advancing on a parallel ridge still further to the right. The C.I.V.'s had a good many horses killed, and many of the men were wounded and "dropped," but I believe only one was killed. Finding the attack was coming from the left, the General showed his force on that side, at the same time shelling the south-east corner of the town. He would do no more because of the women and children in the place; and, considering his disadvantage, the Boers with a little more determination might have held the town. After showing on the left General Wavell swept round on the right, sending the North Staffordshires towards the north side. There they entered, and the place was, so to speak, nipped between the two arms of the brigade, with the artillery in the middle ready to speak. The Boers now broke and fled south-west and north-west, followed by showers of shrapnel. "It was an awfully pretty sight," the General remarked to me, "to see the shrapnel bursting all round in showers; one of the prettiest things I have ever seen." The enemy had open country and soon got away, but in the meantime the Union Jack was blowing bravely over Jacobsdaal, and we were in possession of a most important square on the big chessboard of the Orange Free State.
Of course the chief importance of the position was that it formed a depôt for stores and a halting-place for convoys on the way to the front. The General, with Captain Carleton (brigade-major) and Captain Davidson (A.D.C.), was under fire during the whole of this brisk little action; and Captain Carleton told me that the bullets were whizzing past as briskly at two thousand yards as at two hundred. It need hardly be said that since there were only three staff-officers, whose lives were of the utmost value to the expedition, they spent most of their time in and about the front firing lines. As soon as the General had occupied the square he turned his men out and bivouacked them on the plain round the village. They were exhausted after an eight-mile march, with this action at the end of it; hot and thirsty too, suffering from such heat and thirst as is only known in dusty deserts like the Karoo in time of drought. There was a certain amount of looting—chiefly of cloth and stuffs from the shops; but it was suddenly brought to an end by Lord Roberts's startling order that any man found in the act of looting, or any man against whom acts of looting could be proved, would be hanged, and his battalion sent down to the base. There was no more looting. "There were three ducks found with their necks wrung," the General admitted, "but we paid for them!"
The occupation of Jacobsdaal was, of course, only an incident in the great whirl of operations which began on the 3rd of February, when General Macdonald with the Highland Brigade moved westward from Modder River and seized Koodoesberg. Hitherto we had been waging a very straightforward kind of war, and Lord Roberts's masterly tactics between Modder River and Paardeberg were the first hint we had given our enemy that we also could be cunning. When I arrived at Modder River the wheels of this great operation were spinning, but Modder itself was in an eddy, where there was no movement and little news of any. French was racing to head Cronje off on the north of the Modder River, and the main body of the army was advancing in his rear, but we at Modder River knew next to nothing of these movements.
It is worth while to recall the principal events in Lord Roberts's operations near Modder River. The seizing of Koodoesberg was, of course, intended to divert the attention of the Boers from the points at which the real movement was taking place. On the 8th of the month General Macdonald was recalled to Modder River; on the 9th Lord Roberts arrived there and assumed command; on the 12th General French marched from Ramdam, where he had been collecting a big cavalry force, seized Dekiel's Drift and Klip Drift on the Modder, and the next day occupied a commanding position on the north of the river, capturing three of the enemy's laagers. On the 15th, having traversed Cronje's communications, French reached Kimberley and dislodged the enemy from the southern side of the town; they evacuated Magersfontein and Spytfontein, and retreated to Koodoesrand, contriving in their turn to slip through our containing lines. Jacobsdaal was captured on the same day, and on the 16th of February began the fighting at Paardeberg, which was only brought to an end by Cronje's surrender on the 27th.
However, one was only (as I have said) in the stagnant middle of things at Jacobsdaal, and the outer currents did not reach us. From our point of view Jacobsdaal was not an important station on the war-path to Bloemfontein; it was simply a place of insufficient food, bad smells, choking dust, and many hospitals. The Red Cross flag flew from all the churches and every available house; furniture was piled in verandahs, and pews were stacked in churchyards.
Enteric was rife there; but could a man, officer or private, who had been out for twelve hours on foraging or convoy duty, sit down and boil his water and then wait for a drink until it cooled? Because the water looked clear and innocent they drank it by the quart, and therefore the hospitals were full. Jacobsdaal is responsible for many of the inglorious deaths of "active service."
Early one morning, while the air was yet fresh and cool, General Wavell took me round with him on his hospital inspection. He is one of the small, keen, kind-eyed men who emerge in the senior ranks of the army. One never meets them as subalterns, and they represent the army's best workmanship in the matter of moulding and finishing. We were still talking about the "pretty" little action when we entered the first hospital—a small Dutch church. I should have said that besides our own field hospitals at Jacobsdaal there was a Boer hospital and one of the German Red Cross Society.
This first was the Boer hospital, and even at this early hour the air was pungent with the reek of strong tobacco. The General spoke to all the patients, and had a kind word for everyone, and they all greeted him with gratitude and cordiality. Their one cry was, "We've had as much as we want. If we could only get back to our farms!" Most of those to whom I spoke said that they had never wanted to fight us, never hoped to beat us, and were heartily sick of the whole affair. "I wish I could send you back to your homes, men," said the General; "but I must obey orders." They chatted away to us, and said they hoped the General would come in often. It was much the same in the German and English houses, only here Boers and Englishmen lay side by side, sharing pipes and papers and talk with each other. Truly, animosity ceases at the hospital door; and the attitude of these men who had been menacing each other's lives and now lay stricken together was not unlike the shame-faced amity of children who have been caught fighting, and are made to share a punishment.
And no one was more concerned and depressed by the whole business than the brisk little General, who had been speaking almost caressingly of his shells and shrapnel. He is surely a good soldier who fights at as small a cost as possible, disregards that cost while he fights, and afterwards so behaves that his enemies like to take him by the hand.
Hospitals, where so many virtues too tender for the airs of the outside world have time to bloom, are generally attractive rather than repulsive places, and I was on that account the more surprised to find myself repelled by these field-hospitals. To see men lying about distorted, impotent, disfigured by all kinds of fantastic deformities, their wounds still new, themselves lying near the spot where they fell; and to remember the cause of it all, and how vague that cause really was to the men who were suffering for it; the grossness and brutality of mutilation—here a man with lead in his bowels, there a man with his face obliterated, one man groaning and spitting from bleeding lungs, another, struck by a great piece of flying iron, silent under the shock of news that his sight was gone for ever; the feeling that these men were suffering on our account, and the realisation that every one of us has had his share in the responsibility for the whole, makes a load that one cannot, or should not, slough away in a moment.