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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsNotes Of A War Correspondent - The South African War - 3. The Night Before The Battle
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Notes Of A War Correspondent - The South African War - 3. The Night Before The Battle Post by :simkl Category :Nonfictions Author :Richard Harding Davis Date :May 2012 Read :459

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Notes Of A War Correspondent - The South African War - 3. The Night Before The Battle

III. THE NIGHT BEFORE THE BATTLE

The Boer "front" was at Brandfort, and, as Lord Roberts was advancing upon that place, one already saw in the head-lines, "The Battle of Brandfort." But before our train drew out of Pretoria Station we learned that the English had just occupied Brandfort, and that the Boer front had been pushed back to Winburg.

We decided that Brandfort was an impossible position to hold anyway, and that we had better leave the train at Winburg. We found some selfish consolation for the Boer repulse, in the fact that it shortened our railroad journey by one day. The next morning when we awoke at the Vaal River Station the train despatcher informed us that during the night the "Rooineks" had taken Winburg, and that the burghers were gathered at Smaaldel.

We agreed not to go to Winburg, but to stop off at Smaaldel. We also agreed that Winburg was an impossible position to hold. When at eleven o'clock the train reached Kroonstad, we learned than Lord Roberts was in Smaaldel. It was then evident that if our train kept on and the British army kept on there would be a collision. So we stopped at Kroonstad. In talking it over we decided that, owing to its situation, Smaaldel was an impossible position to hold.

The Sand River, which runs about forty miles south of Kroonstad, was the last place in the Free State at which the burghers could hope to make a stand, and at the bridge where the railroad spans the river, and at a drift ten miles lower down, the Boers and Free Staters had collected to the number of four thousand. Lord Roberts and his advancing column, which was known to contain thirty-five thousand men, were a few miles distant from the opposite bank of the Sand River. There was an equal chance that the English would attempt to cross at the drift or at the bridge. We thought they would cross at the drift, and stopped for the night at Ventersburg, a town ten miles from the river.

Ventersburg, in comparison with Kroonstad, where we had left them rounding up stray burghers and hurrying them to the firing-line, and burning official documents in the streets, was calm.

Ventersburg was not destroying incriminating documents nor driving weary burghers from its solitary street. It was making them welcome at Jones's Hotel. The sun had sunk an angry crimson, the sure sign of a bloody battle on the morrow, and a full moon had turned the dusty street and the veldt into which it disappeared into a field of snow.

The American scouts had halted at Jones's Hotel, and the American proprietor was giving them drinks free. Their cowboy spurs jingled on the floor of the bar-room, on the boards of the verandas, on the stone floor of the kitchen, and in the billiard-room, where they were playing pool as joyously as though the English were not ten miles away. Grave, awkward burghers rode up, each in a cloud of dust, and leaving his pony to wander in the street and his rifle in a corner, shook hands with every one solemnly, and asked for coffee. Italians of Garibaldi's red-shirted army, Swedes and Danes in semi-uniform, Frenchman in high boots and great sombreros, Germans with the sabre cuts on their cheeks that had been given them at the university, and Russian officers smoking tiny cigarettes crowded the little dining-room, and by the light of a smoky lamp talked in many tongues of Spion Kop, Sannahspost, Fourteen Streams, and the battle on the morrow.

They were sun-tanned, dusty, stained, and many of them with wounds in bandages. They came from every capital of Europe, and as each took his turn around the crowded table, they drank to the health of every nation, save one. When they had eaten they picked up the pony's bridle from the dust and melted into the moonlight with a wave of the hand and a "good luck to you." There were no bugles to sound "boots and saddles" for them, no sergeants to keep them in hand, no officers to pay for their rations and issue orders.

Each was his own officer, his conscience was his bugle-call, he gave himself orders. They were all equal, all friends; the cowboy and the Russian Prince, the French socialist from La Villette or Montmartre, with a red sash around his velveteen breeches, and the little French nobleman from the Cercle Royal who had never before felt the sun, except when he had played lawn tennis on the Isle de Puteaux. Each had his bandolier and rifle; each was minding his own business, which was the business of all--to try and save the independence of a free people.

The presence of these foreigners, with rifle in hand, showed the sentiment and sympathies of the countries from which they came. These men were Europe's real ambassadors to the Republic of the Transvaal. The hundreds of thousands of their countrymen who had remained at home held toward the Boer the same feelings, but they were not so strongly moved; not so strongly as to feel that they must go abroad to fight.

These foreigners were not the exception in opinion, they were only exceptionally adventurous, exceptionally liberty-loving. They were not soldiers of fortune, for the soldier of fortune fights for gain. These men receive no pay, no emolument, no reward. They were the few who dared do what the majority of their countrymen in Europe thought.

At Jones's Hotel that night, at Ventersburg, it was as though a jury composed of men from all of Europe and the United States had gathered in judgment on the British nation.

Outside in the moonlight in the dusty road two bearded burghers had halted me to ask the way to the house of the commandant. Between them on a Boer pony sat a man, erect, slim-waisted, with well-set shoulders and chin in air, one hand holding the reins high, the other with knuckles down resting on his hip. The Boer pony he rode, nor the moonlight, nor the veldt behind him, could disguise his seat and pose. It was as though I had been suddenly thrown back into London and was passing the cuirassed, gauntleted guardsman, motionless on his black charger in the sentry gate in Whitehall. Only now, instead of a steel breastplate, he shivered through his thin khaki, and instead of the high boots, his legs were wrapped in twisted putties.

"When did they take you?" I asked.

"Early this morning. I was out scouting," he said. He spoke in a voice so well trained and modulated that I tried to see his shoulder-straps.

"Oh, you are an officer?" I said.

"No, sir, a trooper. First Life Guards."

But in the moonlight I could see him smile, whether at my mistake or because it was not a mistake I could not guess. There are many gentlemen rankers in this war.

He made a lonely figure in the night, his helmet marking him as conspicuously as a man wearing a high hat in a church. From the billiard-room, where the American scouts were playing pool, came the click of the ivory and loud, light-hearted laughter; from the veranda the sputtering of many strange tongues and the deep, lazy voices of the Boers. There were Boers to the left of him, Boers to the right of him, pulling at their long, drooping pipes and sending up big rings of white smoke in the white moonlight.

He dismounted, and stood watching the crowd about him under half-lowered eyelids, but as unmoved as though he saw no one. He threw his arm over the pony's neck and pulled its head down against his chest and began talking to it.

It was as though he wished to emphasize his loneliness.

"You are not tired, are you? No, you're not," he said. His voice was as kindly as though he were speaking to a child.

"Oh, but you can't be tired. What?" he whispered. "A little hungry, perhaps. Yes?" He seemed to draw much comfort from his friend the pony, and the pony rubbed his head against the Englishman's shoulder.

"The commandant says he will question you in the morning. You will come with us to the jail now," his captor directed. "You will find three of your people there to talk to. I will go bring a blanket for you, it is getting cold." And they rode off together into the night.

Two days later he would have heard through the windows of Jones's Hotel the billiard balls still clicking joyously, but the men who held the cues then would have worn helmets like his own.

The original Jones, the proprietor of Jones's Hotel, had fled. The man who succeeded him was also a refugee, and the present manager was an American from Cincinnati. He had never before kept a hotel, but he confided to me that it was not a bad business, as he found that on each drink sold he made a profit of a hundred per cent. The proprietress was a lady from Brooklyn, her husband, another American, was a prisoner with Cronje at St. Helena. She was in considerable doubt as to whether she ought to run before the British arrived, or wait and chance being made a prisoner. She said she would prefer to escape, but what with standing on her feet all day in the kitchen preparing meals for hungry burghers and foreign volunteers, she was too tired to get away.

War close at hand consists so largely of commonplaces and trivial details that I hope I may be pardoned for recording the anxieties and cares of this lady from Brooklyn. Her point of view so admirably illustrates one side of war. It is only when you are ten years away from it, or ten thousand miles away from it, that you forget the dull places, and only the moments loom up which are terrible, picturesque, and momentous. We have read, in "Vanity Fair," of the terror and the mad haste to escape of the people of Brussels on the eve of Waterloo. That is the obvious and dramatic side.

That is the picture of war you remember and which appeals. As a rule, people like to read of the rumble of cannon through the streets of Ventersburg, the silent, dusty columns of the re-enforcements passing in the moonlight, the galloping hoofs of the aides suddenly beating upon the night air and growing fainter and dying away, the bugle-calls from the camps along the river, the stamp of spurred boots as the general himself enters the hotel and spreads the blue-print maps upon the table, the clanking sabres of his staff, standing behind him in the candle-light, whispering and tugging at their gauntlets while the great man plans his attack. You must stop with the British army if you want bugle-calls and clanking sabres and gauntlets. They are a part of the panoply of war and of warriors. But we saw no warriors at Ventersburg that night, only a few cattle-breeders and farmers who were fighting for the land they had won from the lion and the bushman, and with them a mixed company of gentleman adventurers--gathered around a table discussing other days in other lands. The picture of war which is most familiar is the one of the people of Brussels fleeing from the city with the French guns booming in the distance, or as one sees it in "Shenandoah," where aides gallop on and off the stage and the night signals flash from both sides of the valley. That is the obvious and dramatic side; the other side of war is the night before the battle, at Jones's Hotel; the landlady in the dining-room with her elbows on the table, fretfully deciding that after a day in front of the cooking-stove she is too tired to escape an invading army, declaring that the one place at which she would rather be at that moment was Green's restaurant in Philadelphia, the heated argument that immediately follows between the foreign legion and the Americans as to whether Rector's is not better than the Cafe de Paris, and the general agreement that Ritz cannot hope to run two hotels in London without being robbed. That is how the men talked and acted on the eve of a battle. We heard no galloping aides, no clanking spurs, only the click of the clipped billiard balls as the American scouts (who were killed thirty-six hours later) knocked them about the torn billiard-cloth, the drip, drip of the kerosene from a blazing, sweating lamp, which struck the dirty table-cloth, with the regular ticking of a hall clock, and the complaint of the piano from the hotel parlor, where the correspondent of a Boston paper was picking out "Hello, My Baby," laboriously with one finger. War is not so terribly dramatic or exciting--at the time; and the real trials of war--at the time, and not as one later remembers them--consist largely in looting fodder for your ponies and in bribing the station-master to put on an open truck in which to carry them.

We were wakened about two o'clock in the morning by a loud knocking on a door and the distracted voice of the local justice of the peace calling upon the landlord to rouse himself and fly. The English, so the voice informed the various guests, as door after door was thrown open upon the court-yard, were at Ventersburg Station, only two hours away. The justice of the peace wanted to buy or to borrow a horse, and wanted it very badly, but a sleepy-eyed and sceptical audience told him unfeelingly that he was either drunk or dreaming, and only the landlady, now apparently refreshed after her labors, was keenly, even hysterically, intent on instant flight. She sat up in her bed with her hair in curl papers and a revolver beside her, and through her open door shouted advice to her lodgers. But they were unsympathetic, and reassured her only by banging their doors and retiring with profane grumbling, and in a few moments the silence was broken only by the voice of the justice as he fled down the main street of Ventersburg offering his kingdom for a horse.

The next morning we rode out to the Sand River to see the Boer positions near the drift, and met President Steyn in his Cape cart coming from them on his way to the bridge. Ever since the occupation of Bloemfontein, the London papers had been speaking of him as "the Late President," as though he were dead. He impressed me, on the contrary, as being very much alive and very much the President, although his executive chamber was the dancing-hall of a hotel and his roof-tree the hood of a Cape cart. He stood in the middle of the road, and talked hopefully of the morrow. He had been waiting, he said, to see the development of the enemy's attack, but the British had not appeared, and, as he believed they would not advance that day, he was going on to the bridge to talk to his burghers and to consult with General Botha. He was much more a man of the world and more the professional politician than President Kruger. I use the words "professional politician" in no unpleasant sense, but meaning rather that he was ready, tactful, and diplomatic. For instance, he gave to whatever he said the air of a confidence reserved especially for the ear of the person to whom he spoke. He showed none of the bitterness which President Kruger exhibits toward the British, but took the tone toward the English Government of the most critical and mused tolerance. Had he heard it, it would have been intensely annoying to any Englishman.

"I see that the London _Chronicle_," he said, "asks if, since I have become a rebel, I do not lose my rights as a Barrister of the Temple? Of course, we are no more rebels than the Spaniards were rebels against the United States. By a great stretch of the truth, under the suzerainty clause, the burghers of the Transvaal might be called rebels, but a Free Stater--never! It is not the animosity of the English which I mind," he added, thoughtfully, "but their depressing ignorance of their own history."

(Picture: President Steyn on his way to Sand River battle)

His cheerfulness and hopefulness, even though one guessed they were assumed, commanded one's admiration. He was being hunted out of one village after another, the miles of territory still free to him were hourly shrinking--in a few days he would be a refugee in the Transvaal; but he stood in the open veldt with all his possessions in the cart behind him, a president without a republic, a man without a home, but still full of pluck, cheerful and unbeaten.

The farm-house of General Andrew Cronje stood just above the drift and was the only conspicuous mark for the English guns on our side of the river, so in order to protect it the general had turned it over to the ambulance corps to be used as a hospital. They had lashed a great Red Cross flag to the chimney and filled the clean shelves of the generously built kitchen with bottles of antiseptics and bitter-smelling drugs and surgeons' cutlery. President Steyn gave me a letter to Dr. Rodgers Reid, who was in charge, and he offered us our choice of the deserted bedrooms. It was a most welcome shelter, and in comparison to the cold veldt the hospital was a haven of comfort. Hundreds of cooing doves, stumbling over the roof of the barn, helped to fill the air with their peaceful murmur. It was a strange overture to a battle, but in time I learned to not listen for any more martial prelude. The Boer does not make a business of war, and when he is not actually fighting he pretends that he is camping out for pleasure. In his laager there are no warlike sounds, no sentries challenge, no bugles call. He has no duties to perform, for his Kaffir boys care for his pony, gather his wood, and build his fire. He has nothing to do but to wait for the next fight, and to make the time pass as best he can. In camp the burghers are like a party of children. They play games with each other, and play tricks upon each other, and engage in numerous wrestling bouts, a form of contest of which they seem particularly fond. They are like children also in that they are direct and simple, and as courteous as the ideal child should be. Indeed, if I were asked what struck me as the chief characteristics of the Boer I should say they were the two qualities which the English have always disallowed him, his simplicity rather than his "cuteness," and his courtesy rather than his boorishness.

The force that waited at the drift by Cronje's farm as it lay spread out on both sides of the river looked like a gathering of Wisconsin lumbermen, of Adirondack guides and hunters halted at Paul Smith's, like a Methodist camp-meeting limited entirely to men.

The eye sought in vain for rows of tents, for the horses at the picket line, for the flags that marked the head-quarters, the commissariat, the field telegraph, the field post-office, the A. S. C., the R. M. A. C., the C. O., and all the other combinations of letters of the military alphabet.

I remembered that great army of General Buller's as I saw it stretching out over the basin of the Tugela, like the children of Israel in number, like Tammany Hall in organization and discipline, with not a tent-pin missing; with hospitals as complete as those established for a hundred years in the heart of London; with search-lights, heliographs, war balloons, Roentgen rays, pontoon bridges, telegraph wagons, and trenching tools, farriers with anvils, major-generals, mapmakers, "gallopers," intelligence departments, even biographs and press-censors; every kind of thing and every kind of man that goes to make up a British army corps. I knew that seven miles from us just such another completely equipped and disciplined column was advancing to the opposite bank of the Sand River.

And opposed to it was this merry company of Boer farmers lying on the grass, toasting pieces of freshly killed ox on the end of a stick, their hobbled ponies foraging for themselves a half-mile away, a thousand men without a tent among them, without a field-glass.

It was a picnic, a pastoral scene, not a scene of war. On the hills overlooking the drift were the guns, but down along the banks the burghers were sitting in circles singing the evening hymns, many of them sung to the tunes familiar in the service of the Episcopal Church, so that it sounded like a Sunday evening in the country at home. At the drift other burghers were watering the oxen, bathing and washing in the cold river; around the camp-fires others were smoking luxuriously, with their saddles for pillows. The evening breeze brought the sweet smell of burning wood, a haze of smoke from many fires, the lazy hum of hundreds of voices rising in the open air, the neighing of many horses, and the swift soothing rush of the river.

When morning came to Cronje's farm it brought with it no warning nor sign of battle. We began to believe that the British army was an invention of the enemy's. So we cooked bacon and fed the doves, and smoked on the veranda, moving our chairs around it with the sun, and argued as to whether we should stay where we were or go on to the bridge. At noon it was evident there would be no fight at the drift that day, so we started along the bank of the river, with the idea of reaching the bridge before nightfall. The trail lay on the English side of the river, so that we were in constant concern lest our white-hooded Cape cart would be seen by some of their scouts and we would be taken prisoners and forced to travel all the way back to Cape Town. We saw many herds of deer, but no scouts or lancers, and, such being the effect of many kopjes, lost all ideas as to where we were. We knew we were bearing steadily south toward Lord Roberts, who as we later learned, was then some three miles distant.

About two o'clock his guns opened on our left, so we at least knew that we were still on the wrong side of the river and that we must be between the Boer and the English artillery. Except for that, our knowledge of our geographical position was a blank, and we accordingly "out-spanned" and cooked more bacon. "Outspanning" is unharnessing the ponies and mules and turning them out graze, and takes three minutes--"inspanning" is trying to catch them again, and takes from three to five hours.

We started back over the trail over which we had come, and just at sunset saw a man appear from behind a rock and disappear again. Whether he was Boer or Briton I could not tell, but while I was examining the rock with my glasses two Boers came galloping forward and ordered me to "hands up." To sit with both arms in the air is an extremely ignominious position, and especially annoying if the pony is restless, so I compromised by waving my whip as high as I could reach with one hand, and still held in the horse with the other. The third man from behind the rock rode up at the same time. They said they had watched us coming from the English lines, and that we were prisoners. We assured them that for us nothing could be more satisfactory, because we now knew where we were, and because they had probably saved us a week's trip to Cape Town. They examined and approved of our credentials, and showed us the proper trail which we managed to follow until they had disappeared, when the trail disappeared also, and we were again lost in what seemed an interminable valley. But just before nightfall the fires of the commando showed in front of us and we rode into the camp of General Christian De Wet. He told us we could not reach the bridge that night, and showed us a farm-house on a distant kopje where we could find a place to spread our blankets. I was extremely glad to meet him, as he and General Botha are the most able and brave of the Boer generals. He was big, manly, and of impressive size, and, although he speaks English, he dictated to his adjutant many long and Old-World compliments to the Greater Republic across the seas.

We found the people in the farm-house on the distant kopje quite hysterical over the near presence of the British, and the entire place in such an uproar that we slept out in the veldt. In the morning we were awakened by the sound of the Vickar-Maxim or the "pom-pom" as the English call it, or "bomb-Maxim" as the Boers call it. By any name it was a remarkable gun and the most demoralizing of any of the smaller pieces which have been used in this campaign. One of its values is that its projectiles throw up sufficient dust to enable the gunner to tell exactly where they strike, and within a few seconds he is able to alter the range accordingly. In this way it is its own range-finder. Its bark is almost as dangerous as its bite, for its reports have a brisk, insolent sound like a postman's knock, or a cooper hammering rapidly on an empty keg, and there is an unexplainable mocking sound to the reports, as though the gun were laughing at you. The English Tommies used to call it very aptly the "hyena gun." I found it much less offensive from the rear than when I was with the British, and in front of it.

From the top of a kopje we saw that the battle had at last begun and that the bridge was the objective point. The English came up in great lines and blocks and from so far away and in such close order that at first in spite of the khaki they looked as though they wore uniforms of blue. They advanced steadily, and two hours later when we had ridden to a kopje still nearer the bridge, they were apparently in the same formation as when we had first seen them, only now farms that had lain far in their rear were overrun by them and they encompassed the whole basin. An army of twenty-five thousand men advancing in full view across a great plain appeals to you as something entirely lacking in the human element. You do not think of it as a collection of very tired, dusty, and perspiring men with aching legs and parched lips, but as an unnatural phenomenon, or a gigantic monster which wipes out a railway station, a cornfield, and a village with a single clutch of one of its tentacles. You would as soon attribute human qualities to a plague, a tidal wave, or a slowly slipping landslide. One of the tentacles composed of six thousand horse had detached itself and crossed the river below the bridge, where it was creeping up on Botha's right. We could see the burghers galloping before it toward Ventersburg. At the bridge General Botha and President Steyn stood in the open road and with uplifted arms waved the Boers back, calling upon them to stand. But the burghers only shook their heads and with averted eyes grimly and silently rode by them on the other side. They knew they were flanked, they knew the men in the moving mass in front of them were in the proportion of nine to one.

When you looked down upon the lines of the English army advancing for three miles across the plain, one could hardly blame them. The burghers did not even raise their Mausers. One bullet, the size of a broken slate-pencil, falling into a block three miles across and a mile deep, seems so inadequate. It was like trying to turn back the waves of the sea with a blow-pipe.

It is true they had held back as many at Colenso, but the defensive positions there were magnificent, and since then six months had passed, during which time the same thirty thousand men who had been fighting then were fighting still, while the enemy was always new, with fresh recruits and re-enforcements arriving daily.

As the English officers at Durban, who had so lately arrived from home that they wore swords, used to say with the proud consciousness of two hundred thousand men back of them: "It won't last much longer now. The Boers have had their belly full of fighting. They're fed up on it; that's what it is; they're fed up."

They forgot that the Boers, who for three months had held Buller back at the Tugela, were the same Boers who were rushed across the Free State to rescue Cronje from Roberts, and who were then sent to meet the relief column at Fourteen Streams, and were then ordered back again to harass Roberts at Sannahspost, and who, at last, worn out, stale, heartsick, and hopeless at the unequal odds and endless fighting, fell back at Sand River.

For three months thirty thousand men had been attempting the impossible task of endeavoring to meet an equal number of the enemy in three different places at the same time.

I have seen a retreat in Greece when the men, before they left the trenches, stood up in them and raged and cursed at the advancing Turk, cursed at their government, at their king, at each other, and retreated with shame in their faces because they did so.

But the retreat of the burghers of the Free State was not like that. They rose one by one and saddled their ponies, with the look in their faces of men who had been attending the funeral of a friend and who were leaving just before the coffin was swallowed in the grave. Some of them, for a long time after the greater number of the commando had ridden away, sat upon the rocks staring down into the sunny valley below them, talking together gravely, rising to take a last look at the territory which was their own. The shells of the victorious British sang triumphantly over the heads of their own artillery, bursting impotently in white smoke or tearing up the veldt in fountains of dust.

But they did not heed them. They did not even send a revengeful bullet into the approaching masses. The sweetness of revenge could not pay for what they had lost. They looked down upon the farm-houses of men they knew; upon their own farm-houses rising in smoke; they saw the Englishmen like a pest of locusts settling down around gardens and farm-houses still nearer, and swallowing them up.

Their companions, already far on the way to safety, waved to them from the veldt to follow; an excited doctor carrying a wounded man warned us that the English were just below, storming the hill. "Our artillery is aiming at five hundred yards," he shouted, but still the remaining burghers stood immovable, leaning on their rifles, silent, homeless, looking down without rage or show of feeling at the great waves of khaki sweeping steadily toward them, and possessing their land.

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