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after the other right into our ambulance waggons.

We shall be able to post letters to-day, and the reason this one is so
extremely dirty is that I am finishing it in a drizzling rain, being on
picket guard a couple of miles up the river, not far from the scene of
yesterday's shooting. The Boers are on the bustle this morning. One can
see them cantering about on the plain just across the river, where
thousands of their cattle are grazing. In front the big-gun hill
glimmers blue in the mist. Two or three of the enemy have crept up the
woody river-course and tried a shot at us; some close; the bullets
making a low, quick whistle as they flit overhead. My two
companions - there are three of us - are still blazing an indignant reply
at the distant bushes. By the amount of fire tap, tap, tapping like an
old woodpecker all round the horizon, it seems that there is a sudden
wish for a closer acquaintanceship among the pickets generally this
morning. Those fellows in the river are at it again!




LETTER XIII

POPLAR GROVE


_March 8_, 1900.

We left our camp on Modder River at midnight of the 6th. The night was
clear and starlit, but without moon. Moving down the river to take up
our position in the flank march, we passed battalion after battalion of
infantry moving steadily up to carry the position in front. The plan is
this. The infantry advance up the river as if to deliver a frontal
attack; but meanwhile the mounted troops, which have started during the
night, are to make a wide detour to the right and get round at the back
of the Boer position, so as to hem them in. The idea sounds a very good
one, but our plans were upset by the Boers not waiting to be hemmed in.
However, it is certain that if they _had_ waited we _should_ have hemmed
them in. You must remember that.

The guns go rumbling past in the darkness. We are on the right of the
column. Along our left we can just distinguish a long, black river of
figures moving solidly on. It flows without break or gap. Now and then a
jar or clank, the snort of a horse, the rattle of chains, rises above
the murmur, but underneath all sounds the deep-toned rumbling of the
wheels as the English guns go by.

Close in front of us is a squadron of Lancers, their long lances,
slender, and black, looking like a fringe of reeds against the fast
paling sky, and behind us there is cavalry without end. The morning is
beautifully clear with a lovely sunrise, and that early hour, with
horses fresh, prancing along with a great force of mounted men, always
seems to me one of the best parts of the whole show.

As soon as we can see distinctly we make out that we have got to the
south of the enemy's hills, and are marching along their flanks. They
look like a group of solid indigo pyramids against the sunrise. Are
those kopjes out of range? is a question that suggests itself as we draw
alongside, leaving them wide on our port beam. Yes, no! No! a lock of
smoke, white as snow, lies suddenly on the dark hillside, followed by
fifteen seconds of dead silence. Then comes the hollow boom of the
report, and immediately afterwards the first whimper, passing rapidly
into an angry roar of the approaching shell, which bursts close
alongside the Lancers. "D - - d good shot," grunts the next man to me,
with sleepy approval, as indeed it is.

The order to extend is given, but before the Lancers can carry it out
the smoke curl shows again, and this time the shell comes with a yell of
triumph slosh into the thickest group of them, and explodes on the
ground. There is a flutter of lances for an instant round the spot, and
the head and mane of a shot horse seen through the smoke as it rears up,
but the column moves steadily on, taking no notice, only now it inclines
a little to the right to get away from that long-range gun.

We march on eastward as day broadens, through a country open and
grassy, rising and falling in long slopes to the horizon. Suddenly from
the far side of one of these ridges comes the rapid, dull,
double-knocking of the Mausers. The enemy are firing at our flankers;
these draw back under cover of the slope, and we continue to advance,
the firing going on all the time, but passing over our heads. Now the
Major, curious as to the enemy's position, sends half-a-dozen of our
troop up the slope to get a view. These ride up in open order, and are
at once made a mark of by the Boer riflemen, luckily at long range.
Wing, wing, with their sharp whirring note, came the bullets. They take
a rapid survey and return to tell the Major that the scenery in that
direction is exceptionally uninteresting, a long slant of grass
stretching up for a mile or more, and somewhere about the sky-line Boers
shooting. Then comes the usual interval while we wait for "the guns."
The guns shortly arrive and a brace of Maxims. These open a hot fire at
the top of the hill. They are rather in front of us, and fire back up
the slope across our front; the bullets passing sound like the rushing
of wind through grass.

After a bit the order is given to take the hill, and we advance firing
as we go. Beyond the guns and Maxims other men are moving up. You notice
that the Colonials shoot as sportsmen do. The regulars blaze away all
the time, seeing nothing, but shooting on spec at the hill top; load and
shoot, load and shoot, as hard as they can. Our fellows have a liking
for something to shoot at. With their carbines at the ready, they walk
quickly forward as if they were walking up to partridges. Now a man sees
a head lifted or the grass wave, and instantly up goes the carbine with
a crack as it strikes the shoulder. Another jumps up on to an anthill to
get a better view. Every time an extra well directed shell falls among
the prostrate Boers, one or two start up and run back, and noticing
this, several of the Guides wait on the guns, and as each shell screams
overhead on its way to the hill top, they stand ready for a snapshot.
_Wang_! goes the shell, up leaps a panic-stricken Dutchman, and crack,
crack, crack, go half-a-dozen carbines. Though absolutely without cover,
the enemy keep up for some time a stubborn reply, and when at last we
reach the crest, tenanted now only by a few dead bodies, we have lost
nearly two precious hours. Below across the vast plain the Dutch are in
full retreat. It is doubtful already if we shall be able to intercept
them.

The doubt is soon decided against us. We are crossing the flat, kopjes
in front and a slope on the right. Suddenly several guns open from the
kopjes ahead, the shells dropping well among us. At this coarse
behaviour we pause disgusted. An A.D.C. galops up. We are to make a
_reconnaissance_ (hateful word!) on the right to see if the slope is
occupied. "Will the Guides kindly ...?" and the officer waves his hand
airily towards the hill and bows. We are quite well aware that the slope
is occupied, for we have seen Boers take up their position there, and
several experimental shots have already been fired by them. However,
"anything to oblige" is the only possible answer, and the squadron
right wheels and breaks into a canter. Once on the rise the bullets come
whizzing through our ranks quick enough. Down goes one man, then
another, then another. Maydon of the _Times_, who is with us, drops, but
only stunned by a grazing bullet, as it turns out. The Life Guards
deploying on our left catch it hot, and many saddles are emptied.

A charge at this time would have scattered the Boers instantly (they
were very weak) and saved both time and lives. Instead of this, however,
it is thought more advisable to keep every one standing still in order
to afford a more satisfactory test of Boer marksmanship. It is very
irksome. The air seems full of the little shrill-voiced messengers. Our
ponies wince and shiver; they know perfectly well what the sound means.
At last the fact that the hills are held is revealed to the sagacity of
our commanders, and we are moved aside and the guns once more come into
action.

It is easy (thank goodness!) to be wise after the event. I find every
one very discontented over this action, and especially the cavalry part
of it. Had we made a good wide cast instead of a timid little half-cock
movement, and come round sharp, we should have intercepted the Boer
convoy. As it is, we lose two more hours at this last stand which brings
us till late in the afternoon, and soon afterwards, on approaching the
river, we see five miles off the whole Dutch column deliberately
marching away eastward. Our failure stares us in the face, and we see
with disgust that we have been bluffed and fooled and held in check all
day by some sixty or eighty riflemen, while the main body, waggons,
guns, and all, are marching away across our front. "The day's
proceedings," says one of our officers to me with laughable
deliberation, "afford a very exact representation of the worst possible
way of carrying out the design in hand."




LETTER XIV

BLOEMFONTEIN


My last letter was written after Poplar Grove, and we marched in here
six days later on the 13th. Of the fighting on the way I can give you no
account, as I was knocked up with a bad chill and had to go with the
ambulance. Unluckily we had two nights of pouring rain, and as I had
left behind my blanket and had only my Boer mackintosh (with the red
lining), I fared very badly and got drenched both nights and very cold.
This brought on something which the doctor described as "not real
dysentery." However, whatever it was (or wasn't), it made me as weak as
a baby, and I was transferred to our ambulance, in which I lay,
comfortable enough, but only vaguely conscious of my surroundings.

The next day, the 10th, they fought the battle of Spytfontein. All I
remember of it was some shells of the Boers falling into the long river
of convoy which stretched in front of me in an endless line, and the
huge bullock and mule waggons wheeling left and right and coming back
across the veldt, with long bamboo whips swaying and niggers uttering
diabolical screams and yells. We lost a good many men, but did fairly
well in the end, as our infantry got into the enemy among some hills,
where there were not supposed to be any enemy at all, and cut them up a
good deal.

The following day I made the march on a bullock-waggon, which is really
a very fine and imposing way of getting along. Your team of twenty
strong oxen, in a long two-by-two file, have a most grand appearance,
their great backs straining and the chain between taut as a bar, and the
view you get over the field from your lofty perch among the piled-up
kits and sacks is most commanding. There used to be an old print at home
of Darius at the head of the Persian host "o'erlooking all the war" from
the summit of some stately chariot or other, which much reminded me of
my present position. I managed to mount my pony to ride into
Bloemfontein, which we did on the 13th, and am now quite well.

This morning I sent you a wire to tell you that I had got my commission,
thinking thereby to impress you with the importance of the event. The
past five months of trooper life have not passed unpleasantly. There
have been the inconveniences and hardships of the moment, "les petites
miserès de la vie militaire," which sound trifling enough, but are
rather a tax on one's endurance sometimes. The life of a trooper, and
especially of a scout, is often a sort of struggle for existence in
small ways. You have to care for and tend your pony, supplement his
meagre ration by a few mealies or a bundle of forage, bought or begged
from some farm and carried miles into camp; watch his going out and
coming in from grazing; clean him when you can, and have an eye always
to his interests. Your life and work depend so entirely on your pony
that this soon becomes an instinct with you. Then there are your own
wants to be supplied. You will be half starved often if you can't raise
something to put in your pocket - eggs from a Kaffir, or a fowl, or a
loaf of bread. Then there is the cooking question. Wood is scarce;
unless you or your pal have an eye to this, you may go supperless for
want of a fire. Another scarcity is water. Very likely there will be
none nearer than a mile from camp, and this means a weary tramp after a
long day. Then what about your bedding? You can carry only a blanket or
greatcoat on your horse, so that, when you are away from your convoy,
which is often enough, you have not much covering, and if it comes on to
rain you have a poor time of it. Of clothes, too, you have only what you
ride in. If wet, they dry on you; and few and far between are your
chances of washing them. All these things sound and are trifles. A man
would think little of them in a sporting expedition in the Himalayas;
but after a long time the monotony tells. The heat tells. You are
sometimes "a bit slack," and at those times the cooking of your wretched
morsel of flesh, or the struggle for a drop of pea-soup coloured water
becomes irksome.

The little star on your shoulder saves you from all that. You can tell
the new commissioned man by the way he has of constantly looking over
his shoulder. Poor fellow! he likes to catch the pretty glitter - the
"twinkle, twinkle, little star" - that lifts privates' hands to him as
they pass. Some one else cooks for him now, and there is the officers'
mess cart with a few welcome extras and a merry gathering at meals and a
batman to tend the pony (though you keep an eye on that yourself too),
and extra clothes and blankets, and a shelter of some sort to sleep
under, and a Kaffir boy to put out his washing things when he comes in
hot and tired, and altogether life seems, by comparison, a very
luxurious and pleasant affair. I am a bit of a democrat, as you know,
and all for equality and the rights of man; but now I say, like Mesty,
when they made him a butler, "Dam equality now I major-domo."

Bloemfontein is a pretty little place, but it takes you by surprise. The
country round is, for endless leagues, so barren, a mere grassy,
undulating expanse of prairie land, with a few farms at ten-mile
intervals, that the appearance of a town seems incongruous. All of a
sudden you come to a crowd of low bungalow-like roofs under the shadow
of some flat-topped kopjes and realise the presence in this void of the
Free State capital.

The place is suggestive, in its low single storey houses and pretty
gardens, of quiet ease, and has a certain kindliness about it. It is
pleasant to see the creeper grown fronts and flower patches, and few
shady trees after our long sojourn in the veldt. But the one memorable
sight of the place, the scene of a special and unique interest, is the
Bloemfontein Club. This is the first time that the great army under Lord
Roberts has found itself in occupation of any town, and the first time,
therefore, that all its various contingents have had a chance of meeting
together in one place. At the Bloemfontein Club the chance has occurred,
and certainly never before, in any time or place, could you have seen
such representative gatherings of the British race from all parts of
the world as you will see if you stroll any day into the verandah and
smoking-room and bar of the Bloemfontein Club. From the old country and
from every British colony all over the world these men of one race, in a
common crisis, here for one moment meet, look into each others' faces,
drink, and greet and pass on; to be drawn back each to his own quarter
of the globe and separated when the crisis is passed and not to meet
again. But what a moment and what a meeting it is, and what a
distinction for this little place. Organise your mass meetings and pack
your town-halls, you never will get together such a sample of the
British Empire as you will see any afternoon in this remote pothouse.
What would you give for a peep at the show; to see the types and hear
the talk? You would give a hundred pounds, I daresay. I wish I could
take you one of these afternoons: I would do it for half the money.

You can see the great mountain of Thaba Nchu quite clearly from here,
though it is forty miles away, and trace every ravine and valley in its
steep sides, defined in pure blue shadows. We have been out there these
last ten days on what is known as a "bill-sticking" expedition;
distributing, that is, a long proclamation which Lord Roberts has just
issued, in which he explains to the Free State Burghers that all their
property will be respected, and they will be allowed themselves to
return to their farms forthwith if they will just take a little quiet
oath of allegiance to the British Crown. A few have done so and received
passes, but the interest taken in the scheme seems less on the whole
than one would have supposed likely. Some explain it by saying that the
Boers are such liars themselves that they can't believe but what the
English are lying too; while others think the move is premature, and
that the Free State is not prepared yet to abandon the war or her
allies.

We were by way also of endeavouring to cut off any stray parties of
Boers who might be making their way north from Colesberg and that
neighbourhood. Broadwood was in command of us. There was a stray party,
sure enough, but it was 7000 strong. It passed across our bows, fifteen
miles east of us, and we let it severely alone.

Meantime there is a general lull. In the midst of war we are in peace. I
am going off to-morrow to our old original Modder River camp (having
ridden in from Thaba Nchu yesterday), that cockpit where so much
fighting was done and where we spent so many weary weeks watching the
heights of Magersfontein, to get luggage and things left behind. It will
be strange to see the old place deserted and to ride near the hills
without being shot at. Buller is peacefully sleeping at or near
Ladysmith; the sound of his snoring faintly reaches us along the wires.
Gatacre slumbers at Colesberg. Kitchener has disappeared, no one knows
exactly where; and Little Bobs has curled himself up at Government House
here, and given orders that he is not to be called for a fortnight. What
news can you expect in such times? There is positively none.

Bloemfontein gives one the curious impression just now of a town that
has been unpacked and emptied of all its contents, and had them dumped
down on the land alongside. The shops contain little or nothing. They
have been bought up and have not had time to restock. But outside the
town, on the veldt, a huge depot of all sorts of goods is growing larger
and larger every day, as the trains, one after another, come steaming
north with their loads of supplies. There is a street, ankle deep in
mud, of huge marquees, each with a notice of its contents outside:
"Accoutrements," "Harness," "Clothing," "Transit Store," and what not.
Behind and between are vast piles of boxes, bales, bags, and casks
heaped up, and more arrive every hour on loaded trucks along a branch
rail from the station. It is a busy, animated scene. Orderlies run or
gallop about; quartermasters and adjutants and others hurry here and
there, with their hands full of papers from one marquee to another,
collecting their orders; shopping as it were, but shopping on rather a
large scale; and the big ox-waggons come creaking along and churning up
the mud. This is where the cost of a war comes in. These are a few of
the little things that our army will require on its way to Pretoria.
There will be money to pay for this. We shall feel this some day, you
and I.

And poor unstuffed Bloemfontein lies there empty. There are all the
shops, and here all the merchandise. You may guess that the tradesmen
are indignant. Never has there been such a market. Here is the whole
British army clamouring for all kinds of things; most furiously perhaps
for eatables and drinkables, baccy and boots. All these things have long
been bought up, and the poor Tommies can only wander, sullen and
unsated, up and down the streets and stare hungrily in at the empty
shop windows; while out of the empty shop windows the shopkeeper glares
still more hungrily at them. I have heard how in the Fraser River the
fish positively pack and jostle as they move up. So here; but the
unhappy sportsman has nothing to catch them with. Brass coal-scuttles
and duplex lamps are about all that remains in the way of bait, and
these are the only things they won't rise to. He rushes off to
Kitchener. "Give me a train a day. Give me a train a week." "You be
d - - d," growls Kitchener. Back he comes. The hungry eyes are still
staring. Incarnate custom flows past. Never in all his life will such a
chance recur. Poor wretch! It is like some horrible nightmare.




LETTER XV

MODDER REVISITED


BLOEMFONTEIN, _April 9_, 1900.

All the way from Modder River down the Kimberley line and up the central
one from Naauwpoort, the most dismal rumours reached me at all stations,
growing more definite as I neared Bloemfontein. Sanna's Post and
Reddersberg! You have heard all about them by now. Nearly 1000
casualties and seven guns taken.

You remember I told you in my last letter that a big body of Boers
marched north across our bows. Pilcher was out on that side and drew
back. The Boers got wind of him, and wheeled west in pursuit. Broadwood,
not strong enough to hold Thaba Nchu, moved in on Bloemfontein, the
Boers after him.

It is no fun describing things one has not seen. The ground I know. It
is a flat plain the whole way, but down the middle of it is a deep sluit
or watercourse, some thirty feet deep, with steep, sudden banks, and
through this the road dips down and passes. Broadwood halted on the east
side of it, thus leaving it between himself and home. In doing this he
gave a chance to an enemy who never throws a chance away. The Boer
leader was Christian De Wet.

The first thing in the morning the enemy began shelling our camp. The
convoy was sent on, not a scout with it. Meantime, during the night
several hundred Boer marksmen had been sent round into the sluit, and
were now lying right across poor Broadwood's retreat. The Boers, acting
with their devilish coolness as usual, took possession of the waggons
without giving the alarm. Our two batteries and Roberts' Horse came
along, and were allowed to get to point-blank distance, and then the
volley came; magazine rifles at pistol-shot range. For the moment the
result, as at Magersfontein, was chaos.

Hornby dealt the first counter-blow. With the five manageable guns he
galloped back a bit and brought them into action at 1000 yards. He
showed first that it was going to be a fight and not a stampede. "Steady
and hit back," said Q Battery. You should hear the men talk of that
battery. It lost almost every man, killed or wounded, but it was the
chief means in restoring some sort of order to the retreat. But the
disaster was past retrieving. In killed, wounded, and prisoners we lost
a third of our force, the whole convoy, and seven guns out of twelve. I
can see the question you are dying to ask. Why on earth did Broadwood
camp the wrong side of that ditch? That is exactly the sort of question
that a "blooming civilian" would ask. And then came Reddersberg and the
loss of another five hundred. Christian De Wet again! And all this
within hearing, as you may say, of the main British army.

These disasters come most inopportunely for us. Many of the Orange Free
State Burghers, when their capital was taken, seem to have thought it
was all up and some of them took the oath. But this right and left of De
Wet's has changed that impression. It comes just in time to fan into a
fresh blaze embers that seemed dying out. We hear that all the farmers
who had taken the oath are under arms again. They had not much choice,
for the fighting Boers simply came along and took them.

My visit to old Modder River was very interesting. It was quite
deserted; only a few odds and ends of militia, where, when I remember it
last, there were stately great squares of ordered tents and long lines
of guns and limbers and picketed horses, and the whole place crawled
with khaki, and one felt around one all the bustle and energy of a huge
camp. I felt quite melancholy, as when one revisits some scene of
childhood changed beyond recall. Trains were running regularly up to
Kimberley and ordinary citizens were travelling up and down. It seemed
the war was forgotten. To me, who had been living in the head and front
of a big army for seven months, all these old signs of peace and a quiet
life seemed strange enough. There were some children going up with their
papas and mamas. As we came one after another to the lines of hills at
Belmont and Graspan they pointed and crowded to the windows, and papa


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