In the introduction to Taking Chances, Major Burnham describes his service with Baden-Powell in the Matabele Campaign of 1896. He reflects on Baden-Powell’s subsequent career and his deep respect for his accomplishments and the Movement he founded.
IN THE shadow of a majestic mountain in the heart of Africa, lies the body of one of the great men of our time, Lord Baden-Powell, the recipient of distinguished honors won during a lifetime of valor and usefulness. While the stirring music of the military funeral given that great soldier rolled across the high veldt of the Africa he loved, far away in other lands along the Seven Seas, millions of hearts felt a sad throb at his passing, for to them he was more than a famous name,—he was their own "B. P."
Either innate nobility or Divine guidance gave that intrepid and gentle soldier the vision to turn the youth of the world to a new and better way of life. Baden-Powell’s accomplishment was void of contentious dogmas and severe disciplines; it was without threats of dire punishment, neither did it demand obedience. By the simple observance of a few essential precepts the parched and purposeless lives of many youths were changed until they throve and blossomed, just as the dry earth responds to the gentle rain after a drought. Even after all these years of proven fact, it still seems amazing that so many millions of boys throughout the world owe their inspiration to the simple code that Baden-Powell upheld as the guiding star to the vast organization he created and named The Boy Scouts.
The acid test of its virtue is the brand of enemies the Boy Scout movement has stirred up. In the files of Scout Headquarters in London and New York are records of almost every kind of malevolence,—from false assertions and open abuse, to poisonous mixtures of fulsome praise with sly sneering words that make a smear sound both fair and deadly. These attacks, when trailed to their source, are invariably found to be made by subversive groups who hate both individual liberty and a true man’s sense of duty to his Creator and to his fellow man. Even governments have paid the Boy Scouts the high compliment of outlawing their organization. But fortunately the organization lives and grows. It is fulfilling its mission in this war of today, and the future will demand a continuance of its splendid work.
It was my good fortune to meet Baden-Powell when he was a young and vigorous soldier,—at that time considered the best scout in the British Army. He was keen cautious, courageous. During my scouting expeditions with him it was my privilege to hear from his own lips what I believe were the foundational ideas which later developed into the world-wide organization of Boy Scouts.
During those early years of my association with then Major Baden-Powell, certain incidents occurred which may prove of interest even at this late writing. B.P. was fitted by nature for the art of scouting. Only once do I remember his doing a really incautious thing, and it may be worthy of mention, since we all like to feel that our heroes are human. One day, during the second Matabele War, after a sharp fight from daylight until noon, in which our forces had driven a large impi in wild retreat, our men returned over the same ground slowly leading their exhausted horses. The trees in that part of Africa were rather scrubby and not dense enough to conceal a man, but in one spot there was a clump of fairly large trees with thick foliage, making it a natural gathering place for the weary men and horses. Baden-Powell, following up the rear, joined the group, and dismounted without glancing up into the trees. Suddenly there was a roar of an elephant gun directly overhead and a bullet grazed his spine and plowed into the earth at his feet. Almost simultaneously the bullet-riddled body of a black crashed to the ground. The body was that of an old warrior of the famous Ingubu regiment of King Lobengula. Early that morning when the white horsemen swept everything before them, the savage had taken to the tree as a hiding place. As we whites were all a bit careless that day, the warrior could have remained concealed until after dark and then easily escaped. However, when he saw a fine looking Induna (Chief) of the white men come directly beneath his big gun he could not resist the temptation to meet the shade of his king with the proud trophy of an enemy Induna. An old sergeant of the Cape Mounted Rifles remarked dryly: "And with victory within three feet of the muzzle of his gun that fool savage jerked the trigger instead of squeezing it! Oh, well, after all, I have always had a hell of a time getting this precaution into the boneheads of my own white recruits!"
Soon after that our Commanding Officer, General Carrington, sent me with Baden-Powell on a difficult scout to obtain information as to just what the black impis were doing. Those were ox-wagon days, there were no planes, radios, or cameras, not even a telephone, although there was one single telegraph wire that had managed to reach the whites holding Bulawayo. The swiftest medium of news was by saddlehorse, especially if the animals were "salted," or immune from the deadly "dikopf." Every ounce carried was a matter of importance, so we discarded topcoats, slickers, and blankets. As our saddles were badly worn, we added a small saddle-blanket to protect our horses from gall. During that scouting trip Baden-Powell and I were often in enemy strongholds, but by carefully covering our spoor, especially when crossing footpaths, and by using extreme caution and many stratagems, we acquired the information our army so sorely needed. Our great problem then was to get the information back to the General.
Our horses had had no food for two days and were very weak. We had also fasted for two days, but were not exhausted. Each of us had saved about one-half pound of biltong and an ounce or two of coffee, so we knew we could go on for some time, but not afoot, because a hostile band striking our spoor would follow swiftly and surround us. The blacks were not apt to pursue horse tracks, as they believed any horse could gallop indefinitely and escape. Had they been as keen judges of the trail as the American Indian, in a few hours they could have run down our obviously jaded mounts. But the black is a foot-man, while the American Indian is a horseman and can tell instantly the condition of a horse from the look of his tracks.
That night B.P. and I held a council-of-war, which tacitly included our horses, for we knew they were always full of horse sense. As near as we could interpret their language, this is what they contributed: "We have carried you far, and at times galloped hard to save you, but we don’t see why we should be taken any longer on this fool scout in dangerous country. We have never failed to give you the best in us, but now we are nearly finished. In strict justice, since we have carried you on very long treks, you should now carry us. But as strict justice can never be expected for a horse, we can only whinny that very soon it must be food for us, or spears for you."
This subtle warning sharpened our wits. At dawn we compromised by walking with our horses, resting them often. We recalled that not many miles away was a burnt staat, or Kafir kraal, where we had fought only two weeks before. If reinhabited, it would mean a fight,—a perilous thing in our feeble condition, therefore we approached the staat with the utmost caution, for strange as it may seem, it is in daylight that most scouts are killed. When the shadows fall, if one has the "night eye" and knows how to move, the impossible becomes possible. B. P. covered me with a rifle and held the horses in some scrub while I crept close to the staat, for a few warriors might easily have clouded their spoor and taken shelter. In a small conga near the kraal I found a bullhide shield which had been abandoned in the last fight. Suddenly I beat sharply on the shield,—the Kafir war signal,—but only a solitary raven rose from the center of the staat. As no human could escape that bird’s watchful eye, we knew that the place was ours for the moment.
The natives preserve their Kafir corn by burying it in large earthen pots. Sometimes large pits are built like cisterns and hold as much as five hundredweight of grain. The cisterns are sealed with a flat rock and a mortar of mud and ashes. The corn ferments like the ensilage of our western farms, and acquires a sour smell not quite as noisome as sauerkraut or limburger. Fortunately, the corn retains all its nutritive qualities and both man and beast can manage to eat it. Who knows but that our modern medicos may yet discover from it some new vitamin and pronounce it a "must eat" ration?
If the natives had abandoned the staat hurriedly, they would have had no time to carry off the precious corn which, to us, including our horses, would prove to be worth far more than any drumstick of the Oof bird. We knew, by sounding, just how to locate the hidden pots, and soon found a small one. From our saddles we took our precious "must carry" nosebags, the British variety handed down to us by that famous scoutmaster, Genghis Khan, and which were as invaluable as the south African ox-rein, the Mormon "silk," the Mexican rawhide, or the whang-leather of the covered wagon days. In each of the nosebags we were able to stow away about twenty pounds of the precious but ill-smelling corn. We then held the horses by the bridoon and let them nibble at some sweet grass for about an hour, a forage that took the edge off their hunger and thus enabled us to give each a pound of the Kafir corn without causing them to founder. With our sheath knives we cut a feed of grass for each mount and laced it in bundles to our saddles.
The horses fed and rested, we began our long climb to the high veldt. It was a difficult way at best, with almost no cover. We could be seen all afternoon for miles, and we well knew that at any moment an impi might return to the burnt kraal to rebuild it or to get the precious corn in the buried pots, but it was only by taking that hard steep route that we could see a chance of success. The sun seemed to stand still as it once did to please Joshua, but for our part, we prayed ardently for night to come. Just before dark we discovered, unexpectedly, a deep conga in which the last stragglers of the Mapani forest ended their climb from the Shangani River. We threw a loop to disguise our spoor and made camp in the bottom of the conga. At once our hopes began to take on a rosy tinge. Baden-Powell was an expert in hunting and finding dry and almost smokeless wood, as well as concealing a good-sized fire. After watering the horses in the small pool just below the camp, I gave them a feed of the fermented corn, thus adding further fragrance to our hats, which were used in lieu of nosebags.
After a serious discussion, B.P. and I decided to throw a party and use the last of our coffee, eat the rest of our precious biltong, and fill up the chinks with some of the boiled Kafir corn. Why not? There was no great danger until daylight. Besides, who knew, on the morrow we might not have a chance to drink that last cup of coffee. As for food, just imagine some black enemy enjoying our delicious biltong. It was made from eland, the finest meat in Africa, and had been given to B.P. by the famous Boer hunter, Van Royen, who was then in laager in Mangwe Pass and still holding out against the blacks.
Our feast was a great success. We felt tip-top and fortified for the morrow. For the next ten hours the dark mantle of night, that blessed patron and protector of scouts, screened us from the hostile impis. Stretched beside the embers of our little fire we soon exhausted the subjects commonly discussed by young soldiers. Branching off into an outline of the history of warfare among primitive peoples, B.P. drew from me many facts of woodlore that I had learned in my boyhood, especially from life among the American Indians. On comparing motives, we found that each of us thought the other really fought because he liked fighting; but by the warmth of that little campfire we confessed that we really fought only for some high goal beyond us, some ideal cherished and worth giving our lives for, if need be. We then brought out the jug of imponderables and poured out that unanswerable question, Because warfare pervades all nature and reaches back beyond the beginnings of man, must it therefore continue forever, and are its horrors and crimes really cancelled by its acknowledged benefits? B.P.’s contribution to this profound standby for endless theorizing was to paint a word picture of man as a gardener,—a ruthless conservative who, after planting his precious seed, guards it with zealous care. No alien weed will he allow near the seed. Nothing is permitted to impede, threaten, or destroy the growth of his precious plants. With equal zeal, nations must guard and protect their ideals. "Suppose," I interjected with my limited knowledge of gardening, "the gardener’s plants turned out to be cockleburrs?" "Ah," said B.P., "that’s the supreme test. If a nation’s ideals grow wrong they perish in chaos and bloodshed. It all depends upon what seed is sown in the garden. We must plant the right seed to make it worth defending. Burnham, these wild ideas have drifted in and out of my mind constantly, even in my pigsticking days in India. Perhaps they are dreams, yet I believe that even a soldier can do something well worth while. For the next hour B.P. poured out in full his practical schemes for making good. He believed the British Empire, with all its faults, had a great mission to perform. He said, "The time is short, for as surely as we sit by this fire the on-coming world conflagration will make all other wars seem a feeble flame."
In India, B.P. had helped push the boundaries of the British Empire north until they almost touched the claws of the growling Russian Bear. In Africa he had helped empty forever the great bowl of human blood which from time immemorial the Ashanti kings had kept filled in the fetish groves at Kumasi. This time he was trying to prevent the victory of the Matabele whose great king had commanded his thousands of warriors: "Never allow the blood to dry on your spears."
B.P. pointed out that under the British flag slavery had been abolished; life was safe, the population had increased and prospered. "But of course," he said, "no conquered people love their rulers, although in a pinch those who have joined the British Army have rarely turned against it. Perhaps this is an old and boastful British argument. The truth is that all great nations, some of them over a thousand years old, can, although scarred by errors and crimes, lay claim to definite virtues. If modern intelligence is fully applied, a far more livable world can be evolved for all. This is easy to say, yet it is hard to bring about."
B.P. further declared, "The British Empire is in more immediate danger today from enemies within, than from without, and we must hurry to get our house in order, for all previous wars will not compare with what is bound to come. When I look at some of the recruits of our Army, many from the sterile fields of brick and mortar, it sends a shudder clear through me. The one ray of hope is that these recruits seem to retain an innate spark of courage. However, courage alone cannot suffice in the bitter strife ahead. Robin Hood would have had poor chance of recruiting his stout longbowmen from our great cities. Neither could your Indian chiefs have selected their warriors from stuff like your city-bred. A significant fact in your American military history is that roving bands of Indian warriors, often with meagre arms, turned back again and again great waves of armed white men in their westward march. It was over two hundred years before the last hostiles surrendered on your Pacific Coast." All this I knew to be true. I also knew that it was the Indians who had taught that the first object of war is to kill your enemy and save your own men. Baden-Powell continued, "Our books are full of economic platitudes and military slogans. The fact still remains that the foundation blood stock of the British Empire was a hardy self-reliant people living close to the soil. That hardy life was what enabled them to defeat their enemies and never hesitate to face and correct their own mistakes, even national crimes. Now a new age is sending our free farm folk swarming into cities. Our very chest measurements are shrinking. We are attempting the impossible feat of trying to make a pyramid stand on its apex. In my branch of the service—the cavalry—I can see, year by year, what is happening. The cavalry should be the strong eyes of the British Army. We need for it the efficiency of the Canadian Mounties, the endurance of your Indian scouts, the celerity of the Texas Rangers, the craftiness of the Hill Tribes of India. I have implicit confidence that this can be achieved by our ablest young cavalry officers, yet to get good material we must have fresh youth to draw on. Out of the alleys and streets our youths must be brought into camps under the stars— their eyes trained for the night and their feet to move lightly without fatigue. The young and strong of today will be our rulers of tomorrow. We must hurry to preserve our best virtues, for nations without courage and discipline are very short-lived. At the same time we must always remember and respect the code of the knights-in-armor, who, for generations, gave Europe her only ray of hope during the Dark Ages. Through that code, a single knight with mercy and love of God in his heart, brought confidence and comfort to the weak and oppressed as he rode forth against the evil doers who cowered before his high-held lance."
In that distant and prophetic hour, B.P.’s concern seemed to center on the morale of the Army, and in particular, upon developing the scouting power of the cavalry. His first handbook was made up of terse "Hints on Scouting" and was copied for military use by seven of the great nations. But during that night which we spent in a conga on the high veldt of Africa, his thoughts expanded to include the youth of the world.
Near us our horses stood, as horses do, as if carved in stone, and sound asleep. Our minds had seemed too roused for sleep, but we ended our vigil with a bit of youthful tomfoolery. B.P. started it with a rhyme every cavalryman knows—about the loss of the nail that lost the battle—which drifted into an original effort at which each in turn took a drowsy whack ere we passed into complete unconsciousness.
Years afterwards, when B.P. had fully developed his whole plan for scouting, I still recognized the initial ideas expounded that night beside our campfire. For over a generation these ideas have worked successfully for millions of youths in many lands. The Scout movement means much more than sleeping on the cold ground under the stars, or rubbing two sticks together to make a fire, as some jeering folk would have us believe. In this still troubled world it means keeping alive in the hearts of men the fire that should never die.
Frederick R. Burnham, 1944
The ribbon at the left displays the colors of the Distinguished Service Order. The D.S.O. was awarded to Major Burnham in recognition of his service as Chief of Scouts to Lord Roberts (Commander-in-Chief South Africa) during the Boer War, 1899-1902. The photograph of Major Burnham was taken after his service in the South African War. It shows him in British uniform wearing the Distinguished Service Order, the Queen’s South African Medal and the British South Africa Company Medal for the Matabele Campaign. The photograph of Baden-Powell was taken sometime during the Matabele Campaign. He is in field uniform and wears the ribbon for the Ashanti Star.