Richard Harding Davis
THE night we started for “the front,” the front was at Brandfort, but before our train drew out of Pretoria Station the arrivals from Johannesburg told us that the English had just occupied Brandfort, and that the front had been pushed back to Winburg.
Captain Von Lossberg of the Lossberg Artillery, who was guiding me through the Free State, explained 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 the British advance was only what might have been expected, and that Winburg was an impossible position to hold. When at eleven o'clock the train reached Kroonstad, we learned that 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.
Kroonstad is like most of the towns and small cities of South Africa, unfinished, very much out of doors, unhomelike. They all bear the same resemblance to the towns on our eastern seaboard which a barbed-wire fence bears to the gray lichen-covered stone walls of New England, or to the thick flower-scented hedges of old England. Personally, I cannot understand why the South African colonial should prefer a barbed-wire fence and all that it entails, to a stone fence or a hedge and all that goes with them. But then it is difficult to understand the point of view of the South African colonial on any subject.
At the time of our arrival Kroonstad was the capital, “once removed,” where, after its eviction from Bloemfontein, the Government had set up housekeeping, and its head-quarters were situated in Hermann's Hotel, which it had “commandeered.” But in spite of the fact that everyone in the Government service was balanced on one foot and poised for instant flight, he attended to his duties as calmly and discreetly as though he were the perpetual secretary of the French Institute. In what had been the public rooms of the hotel were huge heaps of official documents, requisition papers, orders to commandoes, passports, proclamations, and Government notices, and in strange contrast to these were the furnishings and decorations of the hotel itself-the tariff of meals, the rules for billiards, and the illustrated advertisements of ales, Cape wines, and Scotch whiskies, and the gaudy chromos of the imperial family of Germany and of the Queen of Holland.
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 35,000 men, were a few miles distant from the opposite bank of the Sand River. There was an equal chance that Lord Roberts would attempt to cross at the drift over at the bridge. But as Von Lossberg's Artillery was at the drift we had no choice but to go there. We stopped on our way for the night at Ventersburg, a town ten miles from the river.
Von Lossberg is a young naturalized American who was formerly an officer in the German Emperor's Second Guard Regiment. He served in Cuba as an officer of one of the Louisiana regiments, and when the war broke out in South Africa volunteered for service there with the Free State. At DeVetsburg he was wounded in the head with four pieces of shrapnel, and his men, thinking he was killed, started to run away, but he caught a pony and, wounded as he was, rode after them and brought them back. He continued to serve his guns until an hour later, when he was shot through the ribs and one arm with a bullet. He then withdrew his battery in good order and rode twelve miles with the ends of the broken rib rubbing together. In spite of this severe knocking about, when he returned with me to the Sand River he had been absent from his battery only a little over two weeks. When we met President Steyn on the road to the river, the President put his hand on Lossberg's shoulder and said: “This is an American you should be proud of. We certainly are.” It must have been on the strength of that that Lossberg commandeered the President's field-glasses from off his shoulder, explaining that they would be of more use to his gunners than to a fugitive President.
Ventersburg, in comparison with Kroonstad, where we had left them rounding up stray burghers and hurrying them to the front, 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, so they said, 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 everyone solemnly and asked for coffee. Italians of Garibaldi's red-shirted army, Swedes and Danes in semi-uniform, Frenchmen 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 they did, but they were not so strongly moved toward him; not strongly enough to feel that they must go abroad to fight for him.
These foreigners were not the exception in opinion, they were only exceptionally adventurous and liberty-loving. They were not soldiers of fortune, for the soldier of fortune fights for gain. These men receive no pay, no emolument nor 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, and had found it guilty of “murder with intent to rob.”
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 breast-plate, 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 so well trained and modulated a voice 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 some 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.
Had he arrived 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 been officers in helmets like his own.
The original Jones, the proprietor of Jones's Hotel, had fled when the war began. 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 said it was not a bad business, as he found that one made a profit of a hundred percent on each drink sold. 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 waste places and only the moments loom up which are terrible, picturesque, and momentous. We have read, in “Vanity Fair,” and lately seen in a play, something 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 will remember and which people prefer. They like the rumble of cannon through the streets of Ventersburg, the silent, dusty columns of the reinforcements 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 aids 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 over 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 so largely in looting fodder for your ponies and in bribing the station hands 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 skeptical 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, until in a few moments only the voice of the justice as he fled down the main street of Ventersburg offering his kingdom for a horse broke the silence of the night.
Lewis P. Orans, 2002