Richard Harding Davis
WHEN we had retreated for a mile and a half on the road to Ventersburg, the artillery also ceased firing and followed on the same road, and there was no longer any sound except the heavy booming of the English guns, which grew louder and louder as they were pushed forward in pursuit. The last possible chance left to the Boers to make a stand in the Free State had passed away. At Ventersburg we found Jones's Hotel empty and deserted, the Brooklyn landlady flown, and the rooms open and free to all comers. A black and white kitten had commandeered my room and was luxuriously stretching itself in the centre of the bed. In the stable-yard the Indian coolie who had been left in sole possession was sitting on an overturned bucket and weeping feebly. He was eighty years old and had been abandoned to his fate, which had been described to him by a facetious bar-keeper as hanging or St. Helena. Outside in Ventersburg's only street the shopkeepers and their families were throwing clothes and food into trek wagons, and Cape carts, and their terrified Kaffir boys knelt in the dust unravelling tangled heaps of harness; others of their townspeople were already disappearing in a column of dust on the road to Kroonstad.
On the edge of the town a few men and women were watching the British shells reaching nearer and nearer. Their accents were those of the cockney colonial, and their faces were shining with triumphant, self-satisfied smiles. The men had put on their cricket blasers, the women their jubilee brooches and had wound the ribbons of the Castle Line steamers around their straw hats. They had thrown off the mask and had at last declared themselves. They were waiting to welcome the conquerors.
Since five that morning we had eaten nothing, so we welcomed the lunch the Indian coolie gathered from the hotel and spread for us in the garden, and we lingered over it until a despatch-rider shouted to us over the garden wall that the English shells were falling in the town and the English themselves were coming over the last hill.
The retreat upon Kroonstad lasted five hours and it was a remarkable and painful sight. In it there were young boys and old men, some of the men so old and feeble that when they left their ponies they were not able to walk without assistance. These were not the wounded, but the men who solely on account of their age had succumbed to the severities of the campaign. All of them, young and old, bore the reverse with the same impassiveness which we had grown to recognize as characteristic. They were never jubilant over their successes, attributing them rather to the kindness of the Lord, nor cast down and embittered by defeat. As we rode away from the battle I heard no one blamed for not having conducted it differently, and no one boasted of any particular act. of his commando or of his own personal prowess. The retreating burghers stretched over the veldt for many miles, the trek wagons keeping to the trail and the mounted men riding alone or scattered in groups of from a half-dozen to fifty over every part of the level prairie. It was so casual and so unorganized but not disorganized a movement, that it was impossible to believe it was an army in retreat. The wagons with each from twelve to twenty oxen straggled along the trail in blocks of half a mile in length, and from behind kopjes and cornfields and out of dongas and hollows in the plain the cavalcades kept appearing and disappearing, so that as far as one could see on every hand were countless hundreds of mounted men all coming from a different point and all converging upon the trail to the capital. Toward sundown many of these began to outspan for the night, so that long after all sight of the trail was lost the light of their campfires and the smell of the burning wood and coffee and toasted meat and the odors of massed oxen and horses guided us to the right road to Kroonstad. The English entered Kroonstad the next day, the Boers having again retreated. There was one man, however, who remained and whose adventure deserves remembering. His name is Charlie Manyear, and he belonged to Blake's Irish Brigade. When the English cavalry entered the town he had lingered so long sampling the bottles at the Grand Hotel, which had been abandoned, that he did not hear the soldiers approaching until they had halted in the street before the door. He saw he was caught if he did not act promptly, and with charming resource threw his bandolier, rifle, and coat under the bar, rolled up his sleeves, and began calmly serving drinks. When the troopers entered he hailed them with a glad shout of welcome and declared that they must drink with him and at the expense of the "house." He would take no denial. They made no violent objection to this offer, and he continued to play barkeeper until he declared he needed another box of whiskey from the store-room, and slipping out at the back mounted one of the troop horses and galloped after his friends.
The retreat continued for two weeks, the Boers falling back from one position to another, abandoning each without a fight. They surrendered-without any possible excuse for so doing-naturally fortified places like those at the Sand River and in the hills beyond the Vaal at the Klip River Station, and then, a few days later, they would gather together and come back again, when it was too late. It was difficult at the time to understand why they acted as they did, and the series of retreats from Brandfort to Johannesburg are still to me quite incomprehensible. I was with the burghers during the greater part of this time, and certainly no one could have asked for a better position than the one they prepared to defend at Klip River and which, after they had further strengthened it with long lines of trenches, they abandoned without firing a shot. They did not seem to be frightened, nor demoralized. They were as calm and deliberate as though there were no English within five hundred miles, but they would not stand. Some said it was because, after the flanking of Cronje, the burghers were in constant expectation of being surrounded. Before the surrender of Cronje, during the days of "frontal attacks," they had had to consider only the force which they saw directly before them, but with Roberts they were never sure that other, unseen columns might not be coming around too to cut them off in the rear, and, as they dreaded being sent to St. Helena almost as keenly as death itself, it was impossible to hold them. Incidentally these retreats show the tremendous value of discipline and that no amount of enthusiasm nor self-interest can succeed without it; that even an army composed of patriots -where each man is fighting without pay for his own farm and home and wife and children may, if there is no discipline or acknowledged authority to make the men act in common, go completely to pieces at a critical moment.
Those Americans who see danger in a "standing army" of 60,000 men in a country of 70,000,000 and who would have us depend upon our citizen soldiery, should consider this question. I have seen undisciplined citizens of Greece throw the regiments of regulars into confusion by stampeding through their ranks to the rear, and the citizen soldiery of my own country as represented by the Seventy-First New York Volunteers funking the fight and refusing to join the regulars in the charge up San Juan Hill, and I have seen the citizen soldiery of the Boer republic refuse battles which might have turned into second Colensos, through their not having acquired the habit of obeying orders. At the Battle of Colenso the burghers wanted to fight, at the Sand and Vaal rivers they did not. Discipline would have allowed them no choice in the matter: they would have followed the orders of their officers, who were in this case Botha, De Wet, and President Steyn, all men of remarkable judgment, knowledge, and courage. What made the Boer retreat so exasperating was the fact that again and again they gathered in force and recaptured with a fight towns and positions which a week previous were in their own hands and which they had abandoned.
When the English shopkeepers began to give us our change in the paper currency of the Transvaal, we knew Lord Roberts was not far from Pretoria. When we preferred gold they said that the notes, which were torn in two and pinned together, were the only kind of money they possessed, and then grinned at us inquiringly, as though they asked "What are you going to do about it?"
The signs of the times were further advertised in the altered appearance of the shop windows of the Dutch and English firms. Where for weeks there had been photographs of Boer laagers and caricatures from Dutch comic papers of English generals there were now chromo portraits of the Queen and the Prince of Wales, photographs of English actresses, English stationery, English sheet-music, and English books.
At the Pretoria Club English burghers who had cut the strings of champagne bottles to celebrate Colenso, Modder River, and Sannahspost, became prophets of disaster, foretelling that the end of the republic was at hand, and urged others, while there was yet time, to swear allegiance to the people who would rob them of their land. English burghers who never had entered the club before except in riding breeches and spurs, and after leaving a blanket, bandoleer, and rifle conspicuously in the hallway, now appeared in the sedate and sable garments of the advocate. When you spoke to one of these of the defence of the capital he looked over your head. His mind was deep in his law library: it had never, in fact, concerned itself with any matter more martial or more militant.
Those Englishmen of poor and little souls who had not dared to raise their voices during the days of the Boer triumphs now found them again, now that an army of 35,000 Tommies was only a few miles distant. They began to swell and to swagger, taking the biggest chair in the smoking-room, the head of the table at luncheon, whispering and laughing together in corners. Each of these had made his fortune in the Transvaal; each of them held some post in her judiciary or owned a law-office in Vulture's Row. Boer money was paying for his children's education at the Model school, for the Scotch and soda at his elbow; Boer money enabled his wife to return every season to London to the place she always spoke of as home.
They were full burghers of the Transvaal, and as burghers it was their first duty to de. fend the republic. But the "foul and unkempt" Boer had, with long-suffering generosity and good feeling, absolved them from this duty to the country in which they had elected to live.
"I understand your position," the field cornet of Pretoria would say to them when he called them to his office, "and you must understand ours. You promised if we gave you full burgher rights that you would fight for the republic, and before you gave that promise you should have considered that some day you might be called on to fight against your mother-country. However, it will be arranged. Do not make any questions now, but take your bandoleer and rifle and go with the other burghers to the front. When you have shown your willingness to obey the constitution you will be recalled by telegraph."
And when the English burgher reached the front it was invariably the case that he found a telegram awaiting him in which he was instructed to return to Pretoria. On arriving there nothing more was asked of him than that he should assist in preserving good order at the capital by arresting Kaffir servants who were on the streets without a pass.
This consideration for the English-born burgher, which was always shown those who protested against being sent to fight their own countrymen, is an interesting commentary on the tales told us by the entire press of Great Britain, of how colonials and burghers, because they refused to join their commando, were kicked to death by the Boers. There were as many Englishmen kicked to death by the Boers, for that or any other reason, as there were Catholic nuns blown from the mouths of cannon by Lord Roberts.
But these renegade Englishmen quickly forgot the consideration shown them, and were the first to declare that Pretoria could not be defended; the first to offer to go forth to meet Lord Roberts and surrender the city; the first to desert the people who had sheltered them when they came to them from the London law courts, briefless, penniless, and hungry.
They ran crouching and grovelling to meet the new face at the door, the new step on the floor; they shouted aloud as they ran that they were not as other burghers were, and, to prove this, called for the death sentence of the republic which had befriended them. These were the creatures—neither fish nor fowl, certainly not men—who first repudiated their own country, then repudiated their adopted country, and "with a kiss betrayed her to her master."
During the week before the occupation of Pretoria it was impossible to learn definitely even then from the Government whether or not it intended to defend the capital. No one seemed to think it probable that it would do so, but there were many of the Boer generals who were quoted as saying that it must be held. On the other hand, foreign military experts pronounced emphatically against it. They declared that to protect its enormous perimeter 25,000 men would be required. That was nearly the whole fighting force of the Transvaal when that force was near its greatest strength. There were no means of feeding such a force, and there was not in that short time any chance of collecting together the scattered and fleeing commandoes and bringing them back to Pretoria.
Another and a sentimental reason mediated largely against a siege. This was the regard in which Pretoria was held by the burghers for itself as their chosen city, as their capital. They could not bring themselves to think of it in ruins—of its Volksraad and Palace of Justice shattered, its churches, homes, and flower gardens destroyed. They preferred rather that it should remain as they had known it, even though it fell into the hands of the enemy.
Up to the time that I left Pretoria, which was two days before Lord Roberts entered the capital, there was little excitement and no disorder. The inhabitants were really more concerned over the English soldiers who were imprisoned at Waterval than over those who were fighting their way toward us from Johannesburg. And they had some cause to be. Had 4,000 Tommies who had been caged for many months on a dirt compound suddenly broken loose and taken possession of Pretoria, with no officers to restrain them, one can only guess what might have happened.
The English prisoners, owing to the need of able-bodied burghers at the front, were guarded by old men and boys, and by only three hundred of these. The Tommies had grown entirely out of hand, and now, with the knowledge that help was near, were in a state of reckless unruliness which might lead to any outrage. At any moment a combined rush would have given freedom to nine-tenths of them, but the want of organization, or the lack of a leader, or the fear of each that he might be the tenth man, prevented their mobbing the few guards and making their escape. Once out they could have taken Pretoria empty-handed, for there were no burghers to defend it. Whatever I may think of their officers, no one admires the courage, good humor, and discipline of the English privates and their non-commissioned officers more than myself.
But, knowing what I did of how they were acting at Waterval, and the temper, or loss of it, of the men there, I confess I considered their near presence to Pretoria a much more serious menace to the town than the advancing army of 35,000 disciplined men.
When Roberts reached Johannesburg, and his arrival at Pretoria within the next few days was obviously inevitable, our consul, Adelbert S. Hay, asked the Government that he might be allowed to take twenty of the British officers from their camp to the Tommies' camp at Waterval. He argued that if they reassumed command over their own men they could soon get them in hand, and that no outbreak would follow.
It was a most timely and excellent idea. It saved the English from the mortification which they might possibly have felt had the prisoners run amuck before Roberts arrived, and also allowed the shopkeepers and householders of Pretoria to sleep in peace, without fear of waking in the morning to find the town in the hands, not of the enemy, but of a mob. Indeed, at that time about the only busy men in Pretoria outside of the Boer cabinet was our consul, Adelbert S. Hay, and his vice-consul, Gardner F. Coolidge of Boston. They were acting for English subjects as well as for American citizens, and for over five thousand English prisoners, both civil and the military, and the calls upon them for assistance were many and constant, and involved the protection of life and ' of property of enormous value. Mr. Hay is a young man, and when the President selected him to fill the post abandoned by Mr. Macrum there were many at home who thought him too young to properly carry out duties which were not only consular but diplomatic. But from what I learned of his efforts from Americans, Boers, and British, and from what I saw daily of the work accomplished by him and Mr. Coolidge during the two months in which I was in Pretoria I can think of no one who would have filled the office more successfully or shown greater tact, kindness, and diplomacy, nor worked as unremittingly. Many Americans, whose business had been interrupted by the war, wives who were separated from their husbands at the front, and owners of property who were forced to leave it in the care of the American consul found, in their need, Mr. Hay and Mr. Coolidge to be the best of friends, and the aid they gave to their fellow-countrymen came from the heart, and largely from their own pockets. The English people owe Mr. Hay a debt of gratitude for the care he took of the health and welfare of their imprisoned soldiers which they can hardly hope to repay, and the American Government has great reason to feel gratified at the manner in which he reflected credit upon the administration and upon himself.
I returned to Pretoria a week before it fell, and found the capital completely indifferent to its fate. I heard of one man who in preparation for the siege had laid in a store of forage, and of another who bought tinned meats in sufficient quantities to feed his family for three months, but no one else I knew seemed to take the approach of the British seriously. This was not because they did not care, but because the Boer does not wear his heart upon his sleeve, and treats all fortunes with stoical calm.
There was still enough to eat in the town, although prices rose daily. Sugar, however, was exhausted, and sewing thread. These two commodities, however, were the only things that money could not obtain. Up to the very last the Boer residents gave concerts for the benefit of the sick and wounded, at which one could hear the best classical music excellently played and sung. The Boer children continued to go to school and to shout in the square at recess, the wives of the officials to call and return calls, and each afternoon the carriages of the wives of the foreign residents stood in front of the stores in the "shopping" district, while their husbands met as usual in the cool seclusion of the Pretoria Club. Nine months had passed since the optimistic guard at Waterloo Station had closed the carriage-door on the departing British officers, and convulsed England by wittily calling “All aboard for Pretoria." Since then many of the officers had reached Pretoria with little difficulty, but the fact that the bulk of them were only a few miles distant from the city toward which for a year they had been fighting their way, affected the inhabitants of London much more deeply than the residents of Pretoria itself. One has so few chances of being inside the capital of a nation when a hostile army has advanced to within a day's march of it, that the conduct of the citizens of Pretoria was most disappointing. One wanted them to hold public meetings, to loot the shops, or in some way to show emotion and a proper regard for the dramatic possibilities of the situation. But the Boers, both official and unofficial, maintained the best of good order, and the affairs of life went smoothly forward without heat, bustle, or excitement.
Two days before Johannesburg was taken the Boers began a great trek through Pretoria on their way to the Lydenburg Mountains. From early in the morning and all through the night one could hear the rumble and creak of the ox-carts and the shrieks and shouts of the Kaffir drivers, and all day long one met in every street a broken stream of burghers ambling along alone or in groups, and all moving toward the hills where the last stand was to be made and the guerilla warfare begun. The President and his cabinet followed them at seven o'clock in the evening on the first of June, and the gold to carry on the business of the Government at the new capital at Machadodorp was shipped after them the same evening. It was conveyed in public cabs from the Palace of justice, where it had been stored, and unloaded into a freight-car. There were no guards to protect the treasure, and the Kaffir boys who drove the cabs assisted in removing the gold and carrying it to the car. It was a remarkable sight. It was midnight, and the scene was lit only by a few of the station lamps. The gold was in bars worth two hundred and fifty dollars each, and had been bundled into the cabs and tucked under the seats and piled on top of them and at the feet of the drivers. Before leaving the station for another load the negro boys would lift up the cushions of the seats and feel about behind the flaps to discover if any bars had been overlooked. One boy drove away to some little distance before he, noticed that there was a bar still resting under his foot. He came back, tossed it to one of the station hands and the man threw it into the car. The next day the burghers began to commandeer all the horses for "remounts," and those drivers who were so unlucky as not to own mules, abandoned their cabs by the sidewalks. In a few hours the streets looked as deserted as lower Broadway on a Sunday morning. On the day following the firing of the cannon between us and Johannesburg was faintly audible, and every minute we were told that the English had entered the city, and were marching up to take possession of the public buildings.
Near the railway station there was a great zinc building in which were stored enormous quantities of rations belonging to the Government. These formed the base supply for the men at the front, but the Government, sooner than see these fall into the hands of the English, directed the Boer officials who had been detailed to remain in Pretoria to allow the burghers who were passing through the town to Lydenburg to break open the building and to help themselves. They did so and everyone else in the town helped himself under the pretence of helping the burghers. For hours, women and children, Kaffirs, burghers, Outlanders, shopkeepers, and ladies and gentlemen who needed the food no more than they did shoes and stockings, surrounded the building, ripped open the zinc sides, and staggered away laden with all the coffee, sugar, flour, and candles they could carry. I saw one of the Dutch engineers of the railroad with five ten pound boxes of coffee hung about him by ropes, so that he looked like a strong man giving an exhibition at the Music Hall. Until late in the afternoon Kaffirs and white men together struggled over enormous sacks of flour and sugar until the streets were covered with the contents of the broken bags, and the Kaffir women began scooping the sugar up out of the gutters and filling their aprons. The English residents pointed out the scene to me as one of unlicensed looting, but they knew perfectly well that the rations belonged to the Government, that the building had been thrown open to the burghers and that the burghers were only taking their own. The Outlanders, the English shopkeepers, the Hebrews, the Kaffirs, and the Dutch looted, but the burghers had as much right to the stuff as to the family Bible on the centre-table. The burghers, however, were greatly distressed at the scene of disorder and were chagrined to think what capital would be made of it. They were especially anxious that no photographs should be taken of the scene, as they foresaw that the English would misrepresent the incident and report it as another disgraceful act of Boer barbarism. As a matter of history, although guards were set at the banks and other precautions taken, no private stores were looted. The only stores that were entered were those belonging to the Jew dealers around the railroad station, who had been among the first to loot the rations, and the burghers followed them into their shops and removed the food which they had carried there.
I did not see the entry of Lord Roberts. The event did not seem sufficiently important to repay for the sacrifice. The triumphal entry of the German Army into Paris, I should like to have seen. That was the climax of a great war between two powerful and equally matched peoples, and Paris, even in her moment of humiliation, is one of the two cities of the world. The event itself was magnificent and historical. But the entrance of the Guards and the Highlanders, the C.I.V's, the Imperial Yeomanry, and twenty thousand other troops with Lord Roberts at their head into the undefended village capital of a tiny republic is not a feat of arms that I personally cared to witness, nor to describe. All I could have said of them was what the lady vindictively called after the burglar who had just swept her jewelry from her dressing-table, "I think you might be in a better business."
One feels all sorrow and all respect for the Tommies who have fallen by the Boer rifle, for those boy officers who each week in the illustrated papers smile at us from the past, those young men who though they served in an unjust waged without tolerance and without intelligence gave up their lives for the Empire and with cheerful unselfishness and reckless courage died nobly though in an ignoble cause. But when Lord Roberts and his army fling out the black flag and go forth under it on a Jameson Raid, when they murder old men and young boys because they fight for their homes, the best that they can ask of everyone is silence as to their misdeeds and that their triumph may be crowned with oblivion. When they enter the capital of some great power which they have conquered, when they march into Berlin, Paris, or Petersburg, I certainly hope I may be there to chronicle such a real victory, but I object to being called out on a false alarm.
I left Pretoria with every reason for regret. I had come to it a stranger and had found friends among men whom I had learned to like for themselves and for their cause. I had come prejudiced against them, believing them to be all the English press and my English friends had painted them; semi-barbarous, uncouth, money-loving, and treacherous in warfare. I found them simple to the limit of their own disadvantage, magnanimous to their enemies, independent and kindly. I had heard much of the corruption of their officials, and I saw daily their chief minister of state at a time when every foreign resident was driving through Pretoria in a carriage, passing to and from the government buildings in a tram-car, their President living in a white-washed cottage, their generals serving for months at the front without pay and without hope of medals or titles. Their ignorance of the usages and customs of the great world outside of their own mountains, for which the English held them in such derision, harmed no one so greatly as it harmed themselves. Had they known the outside world, had they been able to overcome their distrust of the foreigner, had they understood in what way to make use of him, how to manipulate the press of the world to tell the truth in their behalf as cleverly as the English had used it to misrepresent them, had they known how to make capital of the sympathies of the French, the Americans, and the Germans and to turn it to their own account, had they known which men to send abroad to tell the facts, to plead and to explain, had they known which foreign adventurer was the one to follow implicitly on the battle-field and which to "vootsak" to the border, had they been men of the world instead of farmers in total ignorance of it, they might have brought about intervention, or an honorable peace. The very unworldliness of the Boer at which the Englishman sneers, did much, I believe, to save Great Britain from greater humiliations, from more frequent " reverses " and more costly defeats.
As our train drew out of Pretoria we had no certain knowledge that the Boer Government had not destroyed the railroad track between the old and the new capital which lay between us and the Portuguese border. The guard could not say how soon we might not be halted at a broken bridge and brought back to find the English occupying the hills around Pretoria. Even as we waited at the station many hundreds of mounted men rode down these hills into Sunnyside, and at first no one could describe them as either Boers or Britons. The passengers were flushed and anxiously excited, and some of them so terrified that from the windows they begged the guards to speed them on their way. General Botha had just departed in a special train for Irene, ten miles distant, where the English were supposed to be advancing in force. In front of his car he pushed open trucks loaded with field artillery. Over at the artillery barracks the guns that still remained were being "snaffled" and "hamstrung," and those cannon captured from the British were awaiting to receive their former masters in a condition of utter ruin. The wildest rumors swept up and down the length of the long platform, stirring and terrifying the refugees into greater and sharper panic, children and women wept and embraced, and cried to the men they were leaving behind: "God keep you well." Wounded burghers pushed their way through the sweating, struggling mass, guarding their bandaged limbs; Kaffirs bearing bundles and boxes shouted and snorted at others to clear the way; and volunteers with bandoleers and rifles were fighting for hanging room on the car platforms, from where they would be able to drop to the ground at the station nearest the fighting-line. From both the Johannesburg side and the Irene road we could hear the reports of the Boer cannon.
I had entered Pretoria in the days of her successes, and I was deserting her at the moment of her fall. I do not know when I had left a place with as heavy a heart, and as the train at last pulled free of the town and ran parallel to the Middleburg highway each mounted Boer it passed seemed, as he waved his sombrero, to beckon us back again. The great veldt, throbbing in the heat of the sun and flashing with brilliant yellow lights and purple shadows, seemed to reproach us. The hot, barren kopjes with their stunted cacti, the splashing water-falls and the twisting white river that raced the train, all filled me with regret.
They had never looked more beautiful or more to be desired, or more as the countrymen would choose to call home. The sight of the men to whom it really was home, who were fighting for it, and who were to continue to fight for it, stirred me with pride in them. I saw them for the last time even as I was steaming away from them to another continent, to other interests and older friends. They were jogging patiently through the high grass on our right and spreading out fanwise over the red kopjes that lay between them and Irene, where the sultry air was shaken with the heavy vibrations of hot-throated guns. They trotted forward alone or in pairs, each an independent fighting man, with his rifle and blanket swung across his shoulders, with his canvas water-bottle, rusty coffee-pot and bundle of green fodder dangling from his saddle. I knew as the train carried us away from the sight of them that no soldier in pipe-clay, gauntlets, and gold lace would ever again mean to me what these burghers meant, these long-bearded, strong eyed Boers with their drooping cavalier's hats, their bristling bands of cartridges, their upright seat in the saddle, and with the rifle rising above them like the lance of the crusader. They are the last of the crusaders. They rode out to fight for a cause as old as the days of Pharaoh and the children of Israel, against an enemy ten times as mighty as was Washington's in his war for independence. As I see it it has been a Holy War, this war of the burgher crusader, and his motives are as fine as any that ever called " a minute man " from his farm, or sent a knight of the Cross to die for it in Palestine. Still, in spite of his cause the Boer is losing and in time his end may come, and he may fall. But when he falls he will not fall alone; with him will end a great principle-the principle for which our forefathers fought-the right of self-government, the principle of independence.
Lewis P. Orans, 2002