Jackal's Pan, Saturday, May 12th.
Colonel Mahon's column left Vryburg on Thursday at sunset in a cloud of purple dust, and as long as the light lasted, we could see the rather pathetic-looking little crowd of residents waving handkerchiefs and flags. It was intended only to march for three hours; but our information about water proved to be incorrect, and the column wound along in the moonlight over mile after mile of the most sterile veldt I have yet seen in the country. I was riding with Colonel Mahon for the last few hours, and was to some extent buoyed up by the repeated assurances of the guide that there was water "just round the bend"; but even so it was a weary correspondent who got off his horse at 2 a.m., after eight hours of walking and riding at a foot-pace. Of course, the poor mules suffered most. Even four hours in harness without a rest is considered too much for them; here they had twice that time, over very rough ground, and in consequence half of them had bad breast-galls. It was a mistake to go on for so long, especially as we had to halt after all without water; but the Colonel could not be persuaded to halt until his transport officer warned him that the mules were at the end of their endurance. And all through that weary march no lights were permitted; no smoking even, which gives one something to do; and when we got into the bivouac at two o'clock, no fires or lights. We had to be up at five and start in the misery of darkness and intense cold; without even the comfort of a hot drink; but we reached the water at eight, and had a long morning of rest and sunshine. No one really grumbles at this sort of thing, although it is most unpleasant; and as the men are all picked for health and endurance, no one is any the worse for it.
We marched eighteen miles on Thursday night, and four the next morning; thirteen yesterday evening, and eight this morning; this afternoon we expect to do another twelve, and reduce the distance before us to an easy two days' journey. Of course, all this speed is achieved at a certain cost in mule and horse flesh, but we hope that the end will justify it. The authorities at Kimberley have not done so well for us as they might have done. They did not take the trouble to find out exactly how many horses were in the force, with the result that the daily horse ration has been reduced from the inadequate seven pounds to the absurd four pounds, while the men are on half meat and three-quarter biscuit rations. Another serious defect in the equipment of the column is that there is not even a section of engineers with us. The want is the more felt as water is scarce and bad along the route; often the only water is a small pan or pond into which the mules wade breast high and churn it into mud, which the men have to make a shift to drink. A few sappers and a waggon with the advance guard would ensure a clean supply for everyone, since water that is quite insufficient in a dam can be made to go a long way when it is pumped into watering troughs; and a section of engineers can fix up the whole necessary apparatus in ten minutes.
Far more interesting than the march of a great army corps, where one gets lost in the miles of transport, is the progress of a small column like this, where one is more or less in touch with everyone, and can watch from within the deliberations and methods of the small staff to whom success or failure means so very much. The little group that rides in front of the guns discusses minutely many questions of absorbing interest in the course of a day's march. Whether such and such a ridge ought to be patrolled; how far the scouts are working in this or that direction; whether it is advisable to halt now and go on after a rest, or do a greater distance and have a long rest at the end. And then, when the time for the five minutes' rest in the hour has arrived, "Halt!" is passed down the column, and one hears the word running down squadron after squadron until it is lost among the lines of the ammunition column. The connecting files pass it forward to the advance guard, who send it out to their scouts and patrols, until the great serpent that winds over the country is completely at rest. Then follows a sound of horses cropping grass and men talking. Then "Stand to your horses!" runs down the column, followed by a shuffling of feet as men scramble from the ground where they have been lying; "Prepare to mount!" and there is a general gathering up of reins; "Mount!" and a long rustle and jingle as the men swing into their saddles; "Walk march!" and the serpent is off again, feeling his way before him.
Three miles in front of us the furthest scouts of the advance guard are working cautiously in the bush, and from the officer in command of the guard a note occasionally comes back to the Brigadier, carried from squadron to squadron and passed along the connecting files until it reaches the head of the main column. One never becomes accustomed to the interest and mystery attaching to these notes, and one almost holds one's breath while they are read; they may contain so much, may carry news of the gravest or most astonishing nature; for if the advance guard found the enemy in strength standing on his head in a donga the information would still be conveyed through the cold propriety of Army Form No. C 398. It is one of the sanest of cold-blooded regulations; let a patrol be never so hard pressed and requiring help never so urgently, the officer commanding it must take time to say so in writing.
I am glad to see that no more farms are being burned, and that we are not burdening ourselves further with the insurgent prisoners. We have already twenty-five, but the Brigadier has been content to read the insurgents who have been taken since a lecture on the folly of their ways, and to warn them that a day of reckoning is coming. I came up to a house yesterday where the Dutch farmer, who was known to be disloyal, had just been arrested and taken away. The troops were making preparations to burn the house, acting on the general order, which had not been cancelled. Within, a child had dropped his toys to stare in astonishment at the strangers, and his mother was weeping alone. I rode back to the Brigadier and said what I could, with the result that I was able to return and assure the woman that her house would not be burned, and in addition to see her husband come back in half an hour. The effect has really been produced already, and prisoners in a flying column are a particular nuisance.
Brodie's Farm, Sunday, May 13th.
The end is drawing near now, and a fight is almost certain this afternoon or to-morrow. A commando of Boers, 400 strong, was reported yesterday afternoon about eighteen miles on our right flank, and some time during last night they pushed on and occupied a kopje at Koodoesrand, directly in our path, where they laid an ambuscade with three guns. They expected (as well they might) that we should come on and butt into their position. But we have learned our lesson, and this morning we made a detour and have got past them. We have marched nine miles; we shall reach the next water (twelve miles) this evening, and to-morrow we must march straight on to Mafeking (twenty-four miles), for there is no water all the way, and there is the prospect of heavy fighting at the end of it. The horses will simply be used up, but that cannot be helped; if we win it will not matter, and if we lose——. It will be a trying day for everyone, and we shall only have a few hours' sleep to-night, but I think no one grudges the discomfort. I write on the eve of what may be a very brilliant, a very disastrous, or a very simple affair. We are a small force, the march so far has been brilliant, and success will be a brilliant crown for the expedition and its leader. Everyone is more than a little anxious, but it is hard to foretell any result.
I forgot to say that we had a runner from Mafeking, with messages from Colonel Plumer and Colonel Baden-Powell; they asked us what our numbers were, how many our guns, and what the state of our supplies. The answer was most ingenious, as we had no code to which they had a key, and we could not trust a straightforward statement of such important facts to the risks of the road. So Colonel Rhodes invented this answer:—
"Our numbers are the Naval and Military multiplied by ten; our guns, the number of sons in the Ward family; our supplies, the O.C. 9th Lancers."
Excellent as the Boer Intelligence is, I do not suppose that they are aware that the Naval and Military Club is at 94, Piccadilly; that the house of Dudley rejoices in six stalwart sons; or that the officer commanding the 9th Lancers is Colonel Little.