After all, we need not have made so much haste to leave Bloemfontein. We had been told there that a column would start for the relief of Mafeking on March 20th, but when we arrived at Kimberley on the 18th we found that no movement was to take place for several days. The date was constantly shifted farther into the future, and the days of waiting had grown into weeks before an order came that Lord Methuen with his force of about 10,000 men was to march on Boshof. As far as information went we lived from hand to mouth; all the orders came from Bloemfontein, and they seldom provided for more than a day at a time. It was not unnatural, therefore, that when an order to move did at last come we built upon it all kinds of extravagant expectations, and it was a cheerful army that left Kimberley on April 2nd and took the road for Boshof.
After many days of inaction it was indeed good to recommence a moving life among oxen and waggons and guns and soldiers. Kimberley was all very well as a spectacle immediately after the siege; everyone flocked to see the holes in the houses and the ruined buildings. It was all very well (so, at any rate, we persuaded ourselves) to live in a club and to dine again amid damask and flowers and cut glass after the rude life of the fields; but even this was a novelty only for a day, and one soon became impatient of the poor shift at living which dwellers in towns are forced to make. I think I never saw a town so lost and drowned beneath the wave of money-getting as Kimberley; even its recent privations were turned to a nimble account, and 6-inch shells were selling at £10 apiece before I left. The people who fled most readily from the projectiles were of course the most eager to buy them—so highly do we esteem the instruments which make us seem heroes to ourselves. For the moment Kimberley transferred its attentions commercially from diamonds to shells: a less romantic and (if you will believe it) a more sordid industry; for there were already more storied and pedigreed shells in private collections and for sale in Kimberley than ever fell into the town.
Boshof, at any rate, provided a welcome change from all this. It is a pretty little town of greensward streets and clear brooks; of white cottages embowered in trees; of rose-gardens and orchards; rather like a remote country town in Ireland—poor and pretty and sleepy. There were few able-bodied men left in it, and aged people looked doubtfully out from their fuchsia-covered doors upon the ranks and regiments of foreign soldiers who came clattering through the streets on some of those hot April afternoons. We were to advance, it was now thought, on the 6th; in what direction we did not know certainly, but we suspected that it would be along the Hoopstad Road. The arguments and speculations with which we occupied ourselves need not be recorded now, but it was at once our hope and fear that we should advance along the north bank of the Vaal. Hope, because there was work to be done there; fear, lest our smaller force should be absorbed by Lord Roberts's larger army and become merely its left flank. Events showed that we might have spared ourselves both hopes and fears, but fortunately we were ignorant, and so found occupation for many an hour that had otherwise been empty.
An interval of inaction in the midst of a war is tedious in some ways, but it is at least of benefit to a mere onlooker, who is thus enabled to disengage himself from the whirl of operations and to discover the results of his unwonted occupation. After having lived amongst soldiers—in some ways and in spite of their profession the most human and civilised of men—it had come upon me as a shock to find in Kimberley the same bloodthirstiness that had distinguished the more thoughtless section of the public at home. Cruel shouting for blood by people who never see it; the iteration of that most illogical demand, a life for a life—and, if possible, two lives for a life; the loud, hectoring, frothy argument that lashes itself into a fury with strong and abusive language—they all came like a clap of thunder after what I am bound to call in comparison the quiet decency of the battlefield. This is a grave thing to say, but it would be unfair to disguise so clear an impression as this that I received, who went to South Africa with so little political bias that eager partisans of neither colour in Cape Town would own me. To appear lukewarm amongst people who are red-hot is not always pleasant, but it has its compensations; one has at least a foothold—inglorious, perhaps, but safe and desirable in a dizzy world.
It was impossible to be in Kimberley and not to become involved in the endless political discussions of clubs and dinner tables. I used to try very hard to discover what it was that made the average Briton living in South Africa hate the Boers so bitterly. The Colonial despises the Boer, but one does not hate a man only because one despises him. Jealousy is the best blend with contempt, and there is no doubt that the Boer's not unnatural desire to be paramount in his own land was what English colonists with whom I talked chiefly resented. We might talk for an hour or for a day—the same old grievances always came round: the inferior political position of the Uitlanders, the primitive, not to say dirty and slovenly, habits of many Boer farmers, and their lack of energy. These are the grievances of the man in the street, and they appear grave enough—when once one has invested oneself with the right of censorship. Then the rebels—wretched, unsuccessful farmers, who found themselves misled and their ideas of duty confounded—these were the chief objects of the lust for revenge. A rebel, as a man who has tried unsuccessfully to overthrow by force the Government to which he owes allegiance, must expect to suffer; but even in the case of these miserable creatures there is surely a scale of responsibility to be observed and a measure of justice to be meted. If Kimberley or Cape Town had ruled the matter by their mass meetings nearly every rebel would have been hanged—a very poor way, one would think, of making loyal subjects. But the reasons that were urged in support of such drastic punishment were astonishingly frank: "It doesn't pay to be loyal," one was told; "we might as well have been rebels." Not a very lofty form of patriotism.
One came to shrink from using that grand word, so plausible a cloak did it become for much that is mean and degrading. For example, when I was riding from Bloemfontein to Kimberley I and my companion descried a farmhouse two miles in front of us near Koodoesrand Drift; when we had come within about a mile of it a little travesty of a Union Jack was run up on a stick, and when we rode up to the door a farmer came out, smiling, rubbing his hands, sniggering—in a word, truckling. His talk was like the political swagger of the music-hall or the butler's pantry.
"I'm John Bull to the core—eh? No damned Boers for me—eh? Ha, ha, wipe 'em out, gentlemen, wipe 'em out: old England's all right as long as we've got gentlemen like you to defend us—eh?" (He took us for officers.) "John Bull for ever—eh?"
And while he spoke someone inside the house played "God Save the Queen" with one finger (incorrectly) on a harmonium. The incident had a more unpleasant flavour than I can well convey; we went away feeling ashamed.
All this belongs to the dark side of the campaign; fortunately there was another, how bright I cannot say, that went far to make one forget the rest. For the soldier the whole moral question had been decided; his duty was so clear that he never needed to hesitate. And his blood would have been sluggish indeed who must not have been stirred to the heart by these inspiring circumstances: whether in camp, where the population of a town was housed and fed in an hour, every man charged with some duty for the common benefit, the whole a pattern of social administration; or on the march, with the scouts and patrols opening and spreading in advance and covering every patch of ground for miles round, the sweep and imposing measure of the marching troops, the miles of supply and baggage waggons, each in its appointed place; or on the battlefield, where troops were handled and man[oe]uvred as on a chessboard, where men went to death with light hearts, lying for perhaps hours under fire, stealing a piece of ground here or a bit of cover there, with one eye on their officer and another on the flash before them, and perhaps a thought in the middle of it all for someone at home—there, indeed, where stern duties were faithfully fulfilled was set a great example. Fortunately for some of us at home the men who direct and conduct our battles are magnanimous, and one had the gratification of seeing, even upon occasions so savage, little acts of courtesy and humanity rendered on both sides that went far to take the sting out of a defeat.
And let there be no mistake about the Boers as soldiers. In spite of the far too numerous abuses of the rules of civilised warfare by detached and independent combatants—abuses, it should be remembered, that have occurred and will occur in every war and in the ranks of every army —our officers and men have a genuine respect and admiration for their enemy. No one looked upon death at their hands as anything but honourable. And as one's admiration and sympathy were stirred for one's own fellow-countrymen, who so unflinchingly performed their duties, could one withhold it from that other army five miles away across the plain—citizen soldiers fighting for their country and their homes? For the soldier politics do not exist; he fights and dies for an idea. This is mere sentiment, you may say, instead of fact about arms and battles; yet the hardest fact that rings beneath your stamp is no more real than poor, flimsy sentiment, which is a living force in the world, and will remain to be reckoned with when pom-poms and Creusots are rusting in archæological museums—monuments only to the mechanical and political clumsiness of the nineteenth century.