Richard Harding Davis
AFTER the relief of Ladysmith, General Buller announced that his column would not again move for a week or ten days, but at the end of ten days he doubted if he could possibly move for another three weeks. This seemed too long a time in which to lie idle in the corrugated-zinc dust-bin of Ladysmith, and I sailed for Cape Town in order to join Lord Roberts and advance with his column from Bloemfontein to Pretoria. But on arriving at Cape Town I learned that Lord Roberts did not intend to move for three weeks, either, and so I decided to say farewell to the British Army, to go to Pretoria by way of Lorenzo Marquez, and to watch the Boers fighting the same men I had just seen fighting them.
This change of base, I should like to add, was taken with the full knowledge and consent of the English officials, both civil and military. They knew I was leaving them to go to Pretoria, and they assisted me on my way. From the Cape Town end Sir Alfred Milner instructed the commandant at Durban, which was under the strictest martial law, to offer no objection to my leaving it for the Transvaal, and Captain Lee Smith, the acting commandant, speeded me on my journey with all good-will and with many congratulations on the chance before me of comparing at such a short interval of time the two armies in the field. I have since read that my reason for leaving the British was because the military press-censors would not allow me to send out the truth concerning General Buller's advance. That is entirely incorrect. A press-censor is a nuisance, but he is a necessary nuisance, and the correspondent who objects to him is generally of the class which proves the need of him. The censors with General Buller, Major Jones and Captain Pollen, were both gentlemen I had already met in London; and in the field, as press-censors, they were able, conscientious, and fair. I certainly had no quarrel with them, nor with any other officer in the British Army. My only reason for leaving it was the one I have given—the fact that I found myself facing a month of idleness. Had General Buller continued his advance immediately after his relief of Ladysmith, I would have gone on with his column and would probably have never seen a Boer, except a Boer prisoner.
When the war opened, I felt that sympathy for the Boer which one generally holds for the underdog, and which one would think all Americans might feel for a people engaged in fighting for their independence; but in spite of this sympathy, and in spite of the wishes of the editors for whom I was acting as a correspondent, and who desired that I should follow the war from the Boer side, I elected to join the British.
I did this because I had never seen so large a body of troops in the field as there were British troops in South Africa, and it seemed a mistake to lose all that they could teach me of the most modern military organizations, equipment, and discipline—things in which the Boer Army was absolutely lacking. I was also moved to join the English Army because almost every friend I had in England was with it fighting at the front.
After I had met the Boers and found them to be the most misrepresented and misunderstood people of this century, I sympathized with them entirely. And I believe that the people of England, who were betrayed into this war by Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Rhodes, who misrepresented facts, who suppressed the truth, who dangled before their eyes advantages they will never enjoy, and frightened them with evils which never threatened and which never will exist. I believe if those people could learn the truth, by three months of inquiry in the Transvaal, which was the way I learned it, their sympathies would be much as mine.
When once free of the martial law of Durban, I had supposed all would be as plain sailing before me as the trip made by the good ship König from that port to Delagoa Bay, but I had not sufficiently calculated on the Portuguese colony at Lorenzo Marquez. For this colony, as the "buffer" state between the British warships on the deep sea and the South African Republic, had erected such an intricate and complex series of checks, counter-checks, and entanglements, that it was easier for a rich man to get into heaven than for a filibuster foreign mercenary, or soldier of fortune to cross over its neutral territory into the ranks of the Transvaal Army.
In order to reach Pretoria it was first necessary that I should take an oath before our consul, Mr. Stanley Hollis, that I did not intend to fight in the Boer Army, and to obtain a sealed and stamped document from him to that effect. On presenting this and my American passport at the office of the chief of police, I was given another sealed and stamped document stating that I had not, during the hour I had spent in Lorenzo Marquez searching for the American consul, committed any serious crime, and that, so far as the police were concerned, I was at liberty to depart. With these I next appeared before the military governor, and after again taking an oath that I did not intend to do anything which would strain the relations existing between Great Britain and Portugal, I obtained one more passport. With all of these I presented myself at the consulate of the Transvaal republic, where an alert young man gave me a third passport and a permit over the Netherlands railway to Pretoria from Komatie Poort, which is the station where the Transvaal touches Portuguese territory.
On the day of my arrival at Lorenzo Marquez the town was invaded by the Irish-American ambulance corps from Chicago, and the Portuguese officials were much upset in consequence. The sixty members of the ambulance corps had been two months in reaching South Africa, and at every other port at which they had touched had been most generously treated, local port dues and taxes having been everywhere raised for their benefit.
But their Red Cross badges could not blindfold the Portuguese, who kept them to the letter of the law, refusing to pass the quinine and whiskey, which apparently formed the chief part of their medical supplies, and taxing them at the custom-house two shillings before they would pass the American flag. The ambulance corps expressed itself rather freely in consequence, and for the good of all, the American consul persuaded the Portuguese railway officials to speed the corps on its way in a special train before, as he significantly expressed it, in the phrase of Jameson raid memory, they "upset the apple-cart." We overtook them the next morning at Komatie Poort, where they were safely inside the Boer boundary, and were snapping their fingers at United States secret service officers, British consuls, and Portuguese governors.
Komatie Poort was a sunny, well-cared-for little town, with a clean, smart-looking station. It might have been competing for one of those prizes which the Pennsylvania Railroad gives to the stations on the line that are kept up to the highest standard of attractiveness. It only needed Komatie Poort spelled in geraniums, with a border of clam-shells, to be in the highly commended class.
It is hard to say exactly what we expected to find. Since I have reached the Transvaal I have been so busy taking in new ideas about the Boer and getting rid of most of the old ones, that the original picture I had of him has become dim and elusive. Yet mine was probably the impression of him which is still held by some millions of my fellow-countrymen.
A young man in a starched khaki uniform put his head in at the window of the railroad carriage, and at sight of the ladies took off his hat. That was my first meeting with the "foul and unkempt" Boer. He wanted passports, and he asked in excellent English if I would come with him to the commandant. The commandant was an immense, jolly, busy man, in a suit of ready-made "store" clothes and a white helmet. He shook hands and bowed and laughed and brought me to a grave, long-bearded man, who looked like a well-to-do New Jersey farmer. The latter wrote his initials on my passport and gave some orders to the railway official in the red hat.
"That is all right now," said the commandant. "You need not open your luggage. It is all passed."
In the meantime a railway porter, having found that the Portuguese had reserved my compartment, hunted up a large blue and white sign with an inscription to the same effect, and fastened it to the door of the carriage. He also shook hands and bowed and smiled. Another official brought a bottle of most excellent French wine wrapped up in a newspaper, and suggested as it was going to be a warm ride, that I had better accept this with his compliments.
The Chicago contingent were waving the American flag and cheering, and for the moment Americans were popular, but apart from all possible question of self-seeking, I have seldom met with greater good-natured kindness and politeness than I encountered on my first entrance into the Transvaal, a politeness and simple courtesy which have continued ever since.
We moved off between great stretches of light-green mountains that turned as they receded into a light blue and purple. There were but few trees. Dark willows and straight poplars told where a farm-house stood and fringed the water-ways, but the general landscape of bare hills and valleys was a light green, covered with the same cacti and mesquite bushes that one finds in Texas. The sun was a gorgeous blazing South African sun that pierced the clouds so fiercely that it robbed them of the shadow which in more temperate zones is found on the side nearer to the earth. They were., instead, masses of spotless white, without motion or apparent moisture, like vast cotton balls, of the dead white which one sees on the icing of a cake.
Ours was a leisurely but a triumphant progress. At trim little stations, set in flowers and surrounded by a dozen or more houses of red brick and the inevitable corrugated zinc, the station hands came out to cheer the American ambulance corps, and the naked Swazi boys who turned the switchboards grinned a welcome. As this welcome continued, the appearance of my fellow-passengers underwent a gradual and mysterious change.
Little Frenchmen in Tam O'Shanters and red sashes, who had been shy and inconspicuous in the presence of the Portuguese governor and his haughty clerks, now swaggered along the platform at each new stopping-place, in costumes which became by hourly additions more and more warlike. What apparently had been an abashed and obtuse German farm hand developed into an alert artilleryman, with a skull and cross-bones on each button of his uniform. A Russian count, who had passed as an attaché, appeared suddenly in the full skirts, boots, and silver cartridge-cases of a Cossack officer, and showed the wound he had received in the Boer trenches. Coats of arms and ribbons of the Transvaal, which came apparently from nowhere, began to fasten themselves on the sombreros of my companions, and medals of foreign wars suddenly sprouted upon their breasts.
The Chicago ambulance corps laughed and winked. Already the men had found that the Red Cross bandage had become burdensome and bound them too tightly. It was stopping the circulation of the fighting-blood in their Irish veins. Two days later all but five of the bandages had been ripped off forever. I am only reporting what happened. If I were expressing opinions I would be forced to say that it is not becoming that the Red Cross flag should be used to cover a fighting man.
I like these particular men for themselves, and because they travelled many thousand miles to risk their lives for people fighting for their independence, but I do not like the garb in which they came. It gives our critics the right to say that the Irish-Americans tricked and deceived, and abused an emblem which is the protection of the helpless and the wounded. Even sortie of the Boers shake their heads and say: "It is a pity they came so."
Toward midday we had our first sight of the Boer militant. He was a red-bearded farmer with a slouch hat, carrying a bandolier over his shoulder and a Mauser in his hand. He could not possibly appreciate the intense interest with which we regarded him. The ambulance corps surrounded him in an admiring, double circle. He was not exactly what they had expected to see. He was neither ferocious nor sullen, nor a wild man of the bush.
He was, instead, a simple, kindly eyed, uneducated farmer. He had been home on furlough to see his wife, and was going back again to the firing-line. He was going back without any pay, without any enticements or medals or rewards or pensions, without the assurance that in his absence an Absent Minded Beggar fund or a Mansion House purse would support his wife and children.
No one had offered him the freedom of any city; none of the American millionaires who had dug their money out of the soil of his country had subscribed to give him a hospital ship; no pretty ladies poured out tea for him at Sherry's under the patronage of Mrs. Langtry and Olga Nethersole; no kind friends presented him with a field-glass, nor "a housewife," nor a copy of " Bloc on War," or Baden Powell's "Aid to Scouting," nor a Kodak camera, nor a bottle of meat tabloids, nor a sparklet squeezer, nor a Mappin & Webb's wrist watch, nor a patent water-filter, nor a knit night-cap, nor khaki pajamas, nor a pair of Stowassers. Fancy going to war without Stowassers and a bottle of tan dressing. This Boer soldier had his bandolier and his rifle, and at parting, the station-master, who had been in the same commando, shook hands with him and said : "Goodbye, Piet." That was his "send-off," and it was likely to be his epitaph.
At the next station he was joined by three more farmers and the son of one of them, a boy sixteen years of age. The boy was not elated at the idea of being a soldier. He did not swagger nor tell of what he had already done to the British, which in a boy of his age might have been pardoned. Instead, he put his rifle in a corner and produced a melodeon, on which for many hours he continued to draw forth mournful and execrable sounds.
There are many boys in the Boer Army. Four of them are sons of Reitz, the Secretary of State. His father told me proudly of how the your guest who is fifteen years old, covered a British Tommy and called upon him to hold up his hands. As his comrades had already surrendered, the Tommy threw down his gun and said to the boy: "I don't care. I'm blooming well sick of this war, anyway. Ain't you?" "Oh, no," protested young Reitz, simply, "for father says that when the war is over he's going to send me back to school."
At every station along the line there were a few Boers gathered to cheer the ambulance corps. There were never more than three or four men to do the cheering, for every man who is not absolutely needed to direct a train or to work a telegraph button, is at the front, and all have been there once or twice already. But whenever the Irishmen appeared on the platforms and at the windows, there would be much handshaking and more cheering. An old Boer patriarch with white beard and gray, deep-set eyes, who might have posed for one of the Huguenot fathers, took off his hat at sight of the flag of our republic, and kept muttering to himself, "Ach, daas is goed, daas is goed," until the train pulled out of the station. He thought it meant intervention; he thought that the flag floating from the car platform, and where, by the way, it had no business to be, meant that the American warships were already steaming into Delagoa Bay. He thought that because sixty wild Irish boys from "across the tracks" of Chicago had come ten thousand miles to help him fight for his liberty, the seventy millions of Americans they had left behind were coming, too.
To thirty thousand men—for I am convinced, after much careful inquiry, that that is all the Boers have had in the field at one time—sixty men count for something. But one could not help comparing the arrival of these sixty with the transports steaming into Table Bay, each with its thousands of men in khaki, so many thousands that no one in Cape Town ever turned to look at them—transports from Australia, transports from Canada, from India, from Scotland, Ireland, and England, and cattle ships, with horses, mules, and oxen, from Sydney, from Buenos Ayres, from Madrid and Cadiz, from New Orleans and Bombay.
One hundred and eighty thousand picked men, "from all the world," "going to Table Bay" to fight thirty thousand farmers, clerks, attorneys, shopkeepers, and school-boys, for the gold that lies in the Rand-gold which has made the Boer neither happy nor rich. For have you ever heard of a Boer who has dug his fortune out of the gold mines? Do you know one Boer who owns a steam yacht or who has built a house in Park Lane?
The Boer owns the soil from which the gold comes, but the Uitlander owns the gold. What money the Boer has taken out of the mines by means of taxes, concessions, the dynamite monopoly, and the liquor law, has not gone into his pockets, but into weapons of war; has not been spent in another country, but in defending his own. When gold was first discovered here, the republic was on the verge of bankruptcy, and a Boer burgher rushed to the President in great delight to acquaint him with the news and to assure him that now that gold was found, the credit of the country was secured.
"Gold!" growled Kruger. "Do you know what gold is? For every ounce of that gold you will pay with tears of blood. Go to your farm and read the Book. It will tell you what gold is."
We halted at night at Waterval Onder, and the next morning were dragged slowly up a steep incline over the mountains. It was easy to understand why the Boer loves his country. The mountains of red rock and light green grass followed each other in magnificent confusion as far as one could see. The river poured down between them for many miles, leaping from one height to the next in a succession of low, wide-spreading water-falls. Great, clean boulders as high as a four-story house blocked the water-ways and formed deep silent pools, overhung by drooping trees and tangled creepers. The sun shone brilliantly on the white breakers of the water-falls, on the green mountain slopes, and on those bare spaces where the hematite had streaked the sides of rock a gorgeous red and yellow. There was little sign of habitation in the landscape, but it held a look of home. It was not barren or forbidding, but big and open, and full of color and beauty and sunshine.
Farther on toward midday the aspect of the country changed and we came to the broad, windy veldt, and the sprawling kopjes covered with rolling stones, the same manner of country I had already seen with Buller's column at Colenso. The veldt stretched for many level miles, without a rise or break except those made by the little stone farm-houses of one story and the surrounding circle of great poplars and the great kopjes. They were the same sort of kopjes which had held back the English at the Tugela, the same naturally fortified hills, the skyline of which we had so often scanned to catch even a brief glimpse of a Boer. It gave me quite a shock to see the kopjes again, and then to turn and find the Boer, with his bandolier and rifle, smoking peaceably in the seat beside me.
There was a large crowd at Middelburg, and, as it was Good Friday, everyone had been to church and was in his or her best bravery. The people cheered the Chicago boys, and Captain O'Connor brought out the flag and waved it over them.
The Landdrost made a speech, an eager and earnest speech, full of fight and courage, and the Americans cheered him and the South African Republic. Many more Boers boarded the train here, and while the speechmaking was going forward entered the carriages and sat at the windows saying farewell to the women and children who had come in with them from the farms, and leaning out to hold their hands. The Boer women wore deep black alpaca frocks and black sunbonnets, and under the cover of these were weeping. They made a contrast to the white starched dresses and bright colors of the other women and little girls of Middelburg who were giving flowers and the Transvaal ribbon to the American volunteers. The men from "across two seas" received the simple welcome modestly and becomingly.
I have travelled with many soldiers on trains and transports and on the march, with our own regulars, with "Tommies," volunteers and soldiers of foreign lands, but I never saw men behave better than did the Chicago contingent. The temptations which beset them on the wayside were many. They had been six weeks at sea, and that, apart from the fact that they were going "to the front" through a friendly country, with refreshment-bars at every station, was sufficient excuse for over-rejoicing. But, on the contrary, the men conducted themselves as well as the best disciplined troops in the world, and were then, as they were later in Pretoria, well-behaved and self-respecting. There was no band to play for them at Middelburg, so just before the train moved on, the Landdrost gathered the Boers and the women and girls together and sang a hymn to them.
The women's voices were thin and inadequate, and the big, broad-chested, heavily bearded men disregarded the tune scandalously, but the spirit of the act was true. The words were in Dutch, but the refrain was: "God keep you well." That much we could understand. It was all they had to offer. A brass band would have meant nothing but noise, but the tribute of good wishes from the women and little girls and old men touched the American boys deeply.
They stood in close order, with their campaign hats off and heads bent. Beyond them were the group of women in black, who were bidding good-by to their sons and praying for their return from the front.
And that was what the Boer women and little girls were doing as well in a foreign language for the Americans, because they had come to fight for them, because they were going straight to the front, perhaps to die for them, because their own women folks were far away, some ten thousand miles away, and were not able to wish them Godspeed.
And so it happened that on Good Friday last the Boer women of the Transvaal were praying for the sons of the women of the city of Chicago, of Cook County, in the State of Illinois.
Lewis P. Orans, 2002