During the inaction of the past weeks there has been but one question asked—"Is nothing to be done for Mafeking?" With the gallant little garrison waiting and keeping the enemy from the door while disease is busy within, it has been hard to sit still and wait for the orders that have been so long in coming. But Kimberley, which had been almost emptied of troops by Lord Methuen's departure, gradually filled again as General Hunter's division assembled; and a few days ago it became plain that some movement was imminent.
Tuesday evening—the eve of the mysterious move—was full of romance for anyone who knew what was about to happen. The dining-room of the club was gay with yellow and brass and scarlet and the subtler colours of wine and flowers; but conversation grouped itself into the small low choruses that indicate far more truly than one united sound indicates the presence of some common and thrilling interest. Earlier in the day I had been admitted to a kind of séance in the Press Censor's office, where an envelope alluringly marked "secret" had been opened, and its contents read to a "limited number of correspondents of known discretion." Within it was written that a flying column under Colonel Mahon would set out at daybreak on the 4th from Barkly West for the relief of Mafeking; that a certain number of correspondents (of known discretion) would be invited to accompany it; that the estimated time was fifteen days; that no provisions or forage would be supplied; that the correspondents must give their word of honour to divulge nothing until a certain time: to all of which we set our hands and seals, and then departed from the office somewhat impressed. It is characteristic of our Intelligence Department that on leaving the office I was greeted by a Kimberley resident with the remark—"Well, I hear that Mahon is going to make a dash for Mafeking on Friday viâ Barkly West; good business!"
So in the evening, although if you had asked point-blank questions you would have been told nothing, the forthcoming dash to the rescue was really the topic. That it is to be the work of the Colonial troops is fair enough, since no one has a better right than they to help their besieged comrades. Therefore the British officer has been for once eclipsed, and the Colonials have had it all their own way. They hovered and bustled about the club all the evening, taking leave of friends and settling affairs. Some of them, one knew, would not return; and the thought never fails to lend a strange kind of solemnity to the eve of a big enterprise. "We're going to have a tough job," Colonel Peakman had said, and men had looked grave for a moment, and then gone on talking and laughing; but the prospect of serious fighting was displeasing to no one. That is always the way; the excitements and not the horrors of a battle are remembered; every man thinks that, though all the rest should fall, he shall stand at the last; a sense of danger in the future is a trumpet-call. And this is a noble part of warfare, to relieve the distressed. A duty to be done at all costs; no questions of how or why, but a clear lead.
There is something in the very words "flying column" to appease the impatient; wings in the air, a swoop upon the victim. But it is merely a bold figure of speech, and means in a case like this a rapid march of twenty miles a day, mules instead of oxen, short rations, starving and ruined horses. These flying cavalry columns and forced marches (the only means by which the slippery Boer is to be cornered) demonstrate to how great an extent this is a campaign of horses. Only the shortest horse rations can be carried, and even at the best, a fortnight's continuous work of this kind will so knock up a good horse that he must have three months' rest before he can be of any further use. So your flying column must start with fat horses, and use up their reserve of flesh, arriving at the end with skeletons. It is dreadful enough to see a good beast, and hundreds of good beasts, starving before your eyes and working hard all the time; but it is only one of the many horrible and necessary accompaniments of a war. What is asked of the horses on an expedition of this kind is that they shall carry a man say twenty-five miles a day on the march, and at the end perhaps carry him another thirty galloping about in a fight; and no animal will stand more than a fortnight of that, even on full rations. So the remount officers have been busy in Kimberley, buying up every animal that looked as though he would last for a fortnight; and the private buyer has been hard put to it to provide for his needs. I was lucky enough in the two hours of yesterday afternoon that were available for the purpose to light upon a cart and team that would carry my load of forage and bully beef; and at 5 p.m. to see the leaders harnessed in for the first time, while my faithful Kaffir groom gathered up the reins with doubt in his eye. Of course the leaders turned round and tried to climb up over the wheelers' heads, but at length they came to an approximate sort of unanimity as to which pair was to lead. Thereafter I had the fearful joy of seeing the equipage set forth at speed down the narrow street. A policeman escaped with his life at one corner, a cripple was snatched from death at another, a nigger was cannoned off at a third—the proprietor of the public menace riding diffidently behind the while, trying to look as though he had no hand in it. But the great thing was that I had got something capable of "flying" with the column, and I was twice hailed on the way out to know whether I would sell the horses.
From Kimberley to Barkly (whither the forces comprising the column had proceeded earlier in the day) the road lies through twenty-five miles of the loneliest veldt; except at the half-way house I did not see a human being all the way. The young moon was up, and threw the earth and sky into sombre night colours—a purple wall of earth meeting the spangled violet of the sky in one long line. For twenty miles of the road there was hardly a sound save the beat of horses' feet; but presently there stole on my ear a kind of music for which one's senses long in this barren country—the murmur of water over stones. It was the Vaal river, running here broad and deep, and making Barkly West a pleasing instead of a dull place. Beside a sharp bend the lights of an inn shone upon the road, promising rest for tired people, whether they had four feet or two; and the promise was fulfilled.
To-day has been given up to horse-buying; the place was like a fair; everyone who owned even the framework of a horse brought it out and offered it for sale; and officers were competing busily for the purchase of any decent animal. I found time to go down and listen to the river—strange sights the water that is flowing so quietly must have passed this morning! For one of our 6-inch siege guns was sent up to Warrenton last night, and opened at daybreak on the Boers at Fourteen Streams. One longs to know something of the result; but the water flows secretly on into more peaceful scenes.
Gunning's Farm, Saturday, May 5th.
We did not get away until nearly nine yesterday morning, and for the first few miles were much delayed by breakdowns in the transport column. The transport mule is a troublesome creature; sometimes he insists on stopping to pick up grass; always he is reluctant to do merely what is required of him. So although our transport column is supposed to take up only one mile of road, it straggled over a good two miles during Friday's march. The road was very dangerous, winding through narrow passes and thick bush country; therefore the scouting was slow and laborious, and the whole column was halted before every unusually dangerous place. But we met no Boers; and since we desire to proceed very quietly and unostentatiously at first this was fortunate. The column consists of about eleven hundred men of the Kimberley Mounted Corps and the Imperial Light Horse, a mixed company of picked volunteers from the Sixth Fusilier Brigade (representing England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales), and a four-gun battery of the Royal Horse Artillery, with two pom-poms in addition. Every man is mounted, including the infantry men, who ride on waggons. Yesterday we marched only twelve miles, owing to the difficulties of the ground, but in the evening our business began in earnest. Lights had to be out at eight o'clock, and this morning we marched off at two, no lights or fires being allowed, not even a match for a cigarette. The joys of rising at 1.30 in the cold pitch darkness (for these are winter mornings, in spite of the summer noonday), and of trying to harness a team, and pick up all one's kit, exist only in retrospect, where all troubles fade. The six-hour march this morning was very cold and very tedious; four hours of it were in darkness, and how late the sun seemed to be in rising! But he came punctually, in spite of a mild panic amongst us lest something should have happened to him, and the pageant of his rising was entertainment for the last two hours. Fifteen miles before breakfast and fifteen after lunch—a journey almost too heavy for the second day. Two teams of mules were knocked up, and more will follow if this goes on.
At Spitz Kop, our breakfast outspan, we heard guns in the distance, and from the top of the high hill we could see the little fluffy clouds of smoke, that meant so much to someone, bursting on both sides. There was an alarm that the Boers were coming our way, and the guns were turned out; but it was a false alarm, and the column came on here to Gunning's Farm, where we arrived after dark. Camping in the dark after a thirty-mile march is wild work—such a commotion of hails and calls, such searching for one's camp, and for the watering-place for horses. The hour of lamplight is precious, and I am near the end of it now.
Muchadin, Monday, May 7th.
A day seldom passes on which one does not receive fresh proof that the world contains foolish people. In the small hours of Sunday morning, when the camp was astir in the darkness, a rifle-shot rang out quite close to me. I could hear the bullet going up like a rocket until the sound was lost. It was the usual thing—some idiot charging his magazine, and forgetting to close the cut-off—with the result that when he snapped his trigger the gun went off. Any good result of our discomfortable regulation as to fires and lights is quite cancelled by such an act, which proves much more certainly than fires can prove the presence of armed troops. The same thing happened early this morning, and the pickets were turned out to find that the alarm was false. It is a great pity, but where the British soldier is to be found in any force, there seems invariably to be found also the man who lets off his gun by mistake. The marvel is that the thing generally hurts no one.
Sunday's march was uneventful, except that trouble began among the horses. One of my four fellow-correspondents lost a fine pair—the wheelers of his team—which he had bought in Barkly on Thursday, and which probably returned to their former owner. But as we have no lines of communication, he will not see them again. My horse fell sick, and the three hours of the midday bivouac had to be spent in hastily breaking in to the saddle one of the leaders of my team. The headquarters staff lost two horses, and five mules strayed from the supply park. The fact was rather tersely announced by Corporal Jenkins of the Army Service Corps, who came up while I was talking to his officer, saluted, and said in the language of his kind—
"Please, sir, I'm deficient of five mules."
The loss of animals from so small a column is really serious, and everyone is looking blue over his deficiencies. I am deficient of a spade and two nose-bags. But then I am to the good by one lame dog, who, in return for slight services rendered on the road, refuses to allow any but my own lawful servants to approach the encampment. We did eighteen miles to-day, and encamped at Greefdal in the evening. We are now well north of Fourteen Streams, where all day long we have heard the guns booming. In the afternoon the native scouts (who work far outside the ground patrolled by our scouts and flankers) reported a party of 500 Boers approaching from the south and east, but they must have turned northward, for we have heard nothing more of them. This morning we could see a long line of dust moving about twenty miles to the north-east; but it has subsided, and the Boers are probably in laager. It is fortunate that Colonel Mahon is an absolutely careful man, since any little neglect in the matter of patrolling and choosing bivouac positions might mean complete disaster to the column, and the frustration of its end. These little things have often been neglected in this campaign; and whenever there has been a convoy captured, it has been because someone has taken for granted that someone else was holding a drift or pass. So we move warily through a placid country that may become at any moment full of menace; travelling may at any moment be exchanged for fighting, and the roadway for the battlefield; even the green slopes that front us may hide the gravest danger, and the river-bed with its grasses and lapsing waters become a pit of death. But one knows little of the future; it is on the knees of the gods.