From Modder River to Paardeberg the road rolls over a bare yet beautiful plain, brown and dry before the rain, but after a heavy rain bursting into endless stretches of purple and scarlet flowers of the karoo. I went by Jacobsdaal. Early on Wednesday morning, February 28th, I rode out from the little town with General Wavell, who put me a couple of miles on the road. You are to understand that this was something of an adventure. I had nothing but a Cape cart and a couple of horses to draw it—a thing that holds, with one's kit, about three hundred pounds of forage. I was going to a camp where I could get no forage and hardly any food; there was not a despatch-rider to be had at Modder; my telegrams must be ridden back from the front, now thirty and soon to be ninety miles away. Sickness had tethered me to Modder River camp throughout the exciting week that had ended with Cronje's surrender; and now on February 28th I was following the army, feeling like one who should enter a theatre as the curtain was falling on the first act.
The thirty-mile ride through the lonely country would have been delightful but for the dismal trail left by the war—carcases of horses and oxen lining the road, a carcase every few hundred yards surrounded by a gorged flock of aasvögels, the foulest of the vulture tribe. With a nervous horse the passage of these pestilential spots was made difficult as well as revolting, and it was with a feeling of relief that one saw the tents and waggons of the Paardeberg camp by the river trees.
Along the road, I should have said, the trail was one of devastation. In the midst of the dry veldt one sometimes came upon a farmhouse with its grove of trees, and spring, and pleasant fields; but always the farm was derelict, windows broken, rooms gutted, stock destroyed, with often some poor abandoned creature tethered to a tree, and waiting, in the midst of the dead silence of the empty country, to be fed and watered.
At Paardeberg I found the headquarters camp situated on the river bank, a place pretty to look at but horrible to be near. The only water to drink was that from a well by the river—water of a dark and strange colour; and even while one drank it one sat and watched the carcases of horses floating down the brown stream from the deserted Boer laager a mile above. For Cronje and his men had surrendered, not only because of losses or lack of ammunition, but chiefly, it was said, because the same conditions that made our camp almost unbearable made his laager in the river-bed impossible for human accommodation. So he surrendered, after a resistance that will live in history as one of the bravest pieces of human endurance.
On my way down I had met a great company of men moving over the plain surrounded by mounted infantry. These were our prisoners—a noble bag of more than four thousand. But now that they had gone there was no reason why the camp should be maintained at Paardeberg, and at noon we proceeded to thread our way eastward—a long procession of men and horses and waggons—to the farm of Osfontein, where the force was being concentrated for the final advance. The delay was fortunate for the correspondents, for those of us who had only a scanty stock of provisions and forage could send our carts back once more to Modder for a supply. In the meantime nothing was likely to happen until a fortnight's stock of provisions and forage for the army had been collected.
Before leaving Paardeberg, and in the intervals of arranging the mere details of living—which on this line of advance were harassing and formidable—I rode over to the deserted Boer laager, or as near to it as was safe. The scene was strange and significant. Imagine the river, deep down between steep terraced banks, flowing through the level plain. On the left side our position, well entrenched, with a few kopjes about two thousand yards from the bank. On the right was the enemy's position, which extended further down the banks of the river and up to the very edge of our side. On the far bank I saw a line of hundreds of transport waggons and carts, all empty, many of them smashed and broken by our shell fire. But it was the river-bed itself that was most interesting. The water was very low, and there was any amount of cover on the steep banks, and this was increased by a number of small pits or trenches—not long trenches like ours, but simple little holes or graves dug in the banks, with room enough for a couple of men. Graves they proved to be in many cases, for where the Boers were shot in them the trenches were simply filled in and the bodies thus rudely buried. But how independent they were! No bulky commissariat department, no army of cooks and butchers—every man with his own kettle and biltong or canned beef, his own rug or sleeping bag, his own water-bottle; so that when he came into such a position as this he could remain in it for days together. One saw many pathetic things in these trenches—garments and personal belongings evidently made by hands that did not work for hire.
In two trenches I found Dutch Bibles; in one a diary of the last few weeks; in almost all some sign that human beings and not machines had been at work there; and on all sides spent shells and shrapnel cases and cartridges, to remind one of the nature of their work. When one followed, as I had followed so far, in the shadow of the war and not in the midst of it, in the track of the Red Cross and the wayside cemetery instead of within sound and sight of the thing itself, one saw a very dark and unrelieved side of it—the shadow without the substance, the effect without the cause.