Dry Hartz, Tuesday, May 8th.
The march of yesterday afternoon was not without its incidents. We came in sight of the village of Taungs at about four o'clock, our road passing ten miles to the west of it at the opposite side of the Hartz valley. I was riding with the advance guard when a man rode up from the direction of the village.
"I've just come to have a look at the troops," said he; "I'm a British subject."
"Oh, are you?" said the colonel in command of the guard, and ordered him to be detained and examined. He told us a great many lies, and is now a prisoner. We have collected about nine prisoners so far, chiefly insurgents against whom there is grave evidence; and they ride along in an ox-waggon quite contentedly, while the dozen men of the Scots Fusiliers who act as their escort regale them with specimens of northern wit. To judge by the sounds of hilarity which float from the waggon, even towards the end of a long march, their efforts are well appreciated.
A patrol was sent over to Taungs, and we watched the squadron dancing away until a fold of the green plain hid them. Soon afterwards we came into camp.
The paramount question at such a moment is always: "What is the water like?" Last night it was very bad, and there was no officer in charge of the watering when the rear of the column came in. The only water was a small, almost stagnant river, and the men were into it, bathing, as soon as they arrived. Then the horses and mules were watered, and stirred up the mud with their feet; and then we sent for drinking water. Of course one has it boiled, but even so——.
While we were having dinner the patrol returned from Taungs, having cut the wire north and south and destroyed the instrument. They found the village empty except for women.
Encounters with insurgents are often amusing, although amongst them they have so far afforded natives of all our three kingdoms reason for shame. Here is something quite typical.
Scene: The veldt road. Enter very slowly from the north, an ox-waggon. Enter from the south, a cloud of dust, out of which emerges the Mounted Advance Guard of the column. They meet, and halt.
Trooper in charge of ox-waggon, saluting and pointing with his thumb within:
"Come to report, sir. Found this woman trekkin' along, and won't give no account of herself."
Commanding Officer draws aside tent of waggon and discovers fat and hearty old woman.
C.O.: "Now, my good woman, what have you to say for yourself?" (No answer.)
Trooper: "Please, sir, she come from that there rebel farm." (To fat and hearty old woman) "Now then, missus, tell the Colonel who you are." (Long silence, during which something seems to be working in the mind of the fat and hearty old woman.)
C.O.: "Can anyone speak Dutch? Here, Evans, ask her what she has to say for herself." (Trooper Evans asks her in fluent Dutch—no answer—question repeated with emphasis.)
F. and H.O.W.: "Whethen now, and shure it's Mrs. McGuire Oi am, and bad luck to the whole av ye. Glory be to Goodness, but it's a quare place Oi'd be in if the likes of you was all Oi had to me back, wid all me bits av sticks and the ould hin herself took be the Boers—bad cess to 'em" (and much more to the same effect, during which the waggon is searched and a couple of Martini rifles found in it, and various other damning evidences, with the result that the waggon is confiscated, and the fat and hearty old woman bundled off to her farm, protesting loudly).
But although such incidents are sometimes amusing they are often painful, and the burning of houses that has gone on this afternoon has been a most unpleasant business. We have been marching through a part of the country where some mischievous person has been collecting and encouraging insurgents. And this afternoon in the course of about ten miles we have burned no less than six farmhouses. Care seems to have been taken that there was proper evidence against the owners who were absent. In one case the wife of an insurgent who was lying sick at a friend's farm, watched from her sick husband's bedside the burning of her home a hundred yards away. I cannot think that punishment need take this wild form; it seems as though a kind of domestic murder were being committed while one watches the roof and furniture of a house blazing; and how many obscure deaths of the soul take place while a woman watches her home, and all the little valueless possessions that are precious to her, falling into ruin before her eyes? I stood till late last night before the red blaze, and saw the flames lick round each piece of the poor furniture—the chairs and tables, the baby's cradle, the chest of drawers containing a world of treasure; and when I saw the poor housewife's face pressed against the window of the neighbouring house my own heart burned with a sense of outrage. The crime of insurrection is a serious one, but I never heard yet of a crime for which the responsibility rested on the criminal alone.
On quite different grounds, this destruction would appear to be worse than useless. The effect on those of the Colonial troops who, in carrying out the orders to destroy, are gratifying their feelings of hatred and revenge, is very bad. Their discipline is far below that of the Imperial troops, and they soon get out of hand. They swarm into the houses, looting and destroying, and filling the air with high-sounding cries of vengeance, and yesterday some of them were complaining bitterly that a suspected house, against the owner of which there was not sufficient evidence, was not delivered into their hands. Further, if these farms are to be confiscated (as the more revengeful loyalists desire) and given over to settlers, why burn the houses? The new occupant will only have to build another homestead, and building is a serious matter where wood and the means of dressing stone are so very scarce as here. The ends achieved are small—simply an exhibition of power, and punishment which (if it be really necessary) could be otherwise inflicted; and the evils, as one sees them on the spot, are many and great. If I described one-half of the little things which I saw in the process of destruction I should be accused of sentimentalising; but the principle of the thing seems clear enough. If one could only hope that with the conflagration would die down those hotter fires that burn in the heart of this country, one might accept the manifest disadvantages. But good feeling will never spring from ashes like these; every charred spot is the grave of that which neither time nor laws can revive.
Brakfontein, Wednesday, May 9th.
We are not far from Vryburg now, and expect to enter it to-day without opposition. From several prisoners taken on the way (there are twenty of them now) we heard that the Boer police in Vryburg knew of our presence at two o'clock on Sunday, and that they all fled. Another farm was burned this morning, and much ammunition destroyed. We have now got over a great and critical part of our journey, which has been admirably made through very difficult country, and we do not expect opposition until we approach Mafeking. Cronje, who was reported on Sunday to be moving westwards with a force to cut us off, has apparently missed us, and he will hardly attempt a rear-guard action without guns. We have two pom-poms, and everyone—even the most peaceful of us—who has once been shot at by these infernal machines is eager to watch them at work from the right end.
Vryburg, Thursday, May 10th.
We occupied Vryburg yesterday at about three o'clock. We made a very easy march, with a long rest at midday, and as the column wound up to the summit of a high ridge we saw Vryburg lying green and white on the farther slope. Half our journey done, and the most dangerous half; it was a pleasant sight. The Boers had all left the little town, and the English residents—chiefly women of the artisan and shopkeeper class—swarmed out to meet us, waving spurious Union Jacks, and exhibiting all the loyalty that can be displayed by means of dyes and pigments. It was like Bloemfontein on a smaller scale.
The people here have been in rather a bad way. There has been a great deal of sickness; the supplies have been very scanty, and meal seems to be the only thing of which they have plenty. So naturally they welcomed the column as the sign of an open road to Kimberley.
I went to see the railway station, which has been much damaged. The only two locomotives here have been outraged; vacuum gauges have been broken, dome-covers torn, and taps smashed; and bullets have been fired at the steel-plated boilers, which, however, they did not penetrate. But it is only outrage, and it seems that with materials left in the workshops here the engines can be repaired in a couple of days. The Boers have been very clumsy over this; a dynamite cartridge might have been strapped under a driving axle in far less time, and its explosion would have been more effectual.
Our chief joy has been in straying about the town, revelling in the sense of things to be bought. No man can withstand shops after having experienced for several days conditions under which money is not of value. There is really nothing to buy that is of much use, but we stand agape at the window of an ironmonger's shop, fingering the money in our pockets, and wondering whether to buy an axe or a mincing machine. On the whole, the axe has it; one must have fires; and bully beef can be eaten in the slab form.