An Excerpt from:
CHAPTER II. FIRST EXPERIENCES IN SOUTH AFRICA
As trouble between the Boers and the British was brewing in South Africa, the regiment disembarked at Port Natal (Durban) instead of sailing straight home. This was B.-P.’s first visit to a country which he was to know so well—a country, indeed, which he loved only second to England. As South Africa was to play such an important part in his life, it is necessary for us to know something about it.
In 1884, the year in which the I3th Hussars landed at Port Natal, the British colonies were Cape Colony and Natal. There were two Boer Republics, the Orange Free State bordering Cape Colony between the Orange River and the Natal River, and the Transvaal, beyond the Vaal, as the name implies, and bounded on the north by the River Limpopo. North again lay Matabeleland, the Southern Rhodesia of to-day. On the west the Boer Republics were bordered by Bechuanaland, a country inhabited by natives, but coveted by farmers and settlers who wished for more land. This was where trouble had come to a head in 1884; a British force under Sir Charles Warren was sent up from Cape Colony to fix the frontier. Between the Boer Republics and the Indian Ocean was Natal; the frontier was marked here by the Drakensberg Mountains, which rise steeply from Natal to a height of over 10,000 feet, with a few passes at 5,000 feet. A glance at the map will make all this clear, and will also show where lay the other native countries of Basutoland, Zululand and Swaziland. It will be seen that it would not have been an easy task for the British in Natal to join up with Sir Charles Warren on the Bechuanaland frontier, some 400 miles to the west. The first big obstacle was the Drakensberg. The few good passes would be well guarded, and might prove death-traps which could be held by a few Boers.
The Colonel of the 13th Hussars naturally realized the problems, and he therefore decided that someone should be sent out to find, if possible, other ways of crossing the Drakensberg than by the known passes. For this task he selected B.-P. His skill as a scout and as a surveyor as well as an actor made him the ideal man for the task. He laid his plans carefully. First of all he grew a beard; then he studied the kind of civilian clothes men usually wore in that part of the world, and dressed himself in the same fashion. He decided that he would play the part of a newspaper-man collecting information about the country for the use of possible settlers. This would explain why he was wandering about, the number of questions he asked, and also his sketching.
He set off on horseback and did a tour of about 600 miles. He ran no unnecessary risks—no good scout does that—because there were quite enough dangers without looking for them. One incident will show how he could make deductions from the simplest signs. Once towards nightfall he was searching for somewhere to spend the night. At last he reached a hut, and after off-saddling and knee-haltering his horse, he went up to the door. There was no sign of any one about, but he noticed two toothbrushes in a glass on the windowsill. He argued that the owner was an Englishman, and probably a decent kind of fellow; so he took the risk, and he was not mistaken when the settler returned and welcomed his unexpected guest.
B.-P. collected some very useful information and was able to add many details to the existing maps of the country; he had also got to know the Boers and to like them. One of his characteristics was the ease with which he made friends. This was partly because he was so interested in everything and everybody; he was always keen to learn about people’s work and how they lived, and, as he was such good company himself, it was very difficult to be offended with him.
Sir Charles Warren was able to settle the Bechuanaland dispute without needing the aid of extra troops, so the 13th Hussars were ordered to continue their passage to England. B.-P., with some fellow-officers, obtained six months’ leave for a hunting expedition in Portuguese East Africa. This gave him an opportunity of adding to his knowledge of wild animal life, and also of getting to know more of the African native. As was his custom, he kept an illustrated diary for the benefit of his mother. Some of the notes in it for this period show how he was always on the watch for fresh ideas. Here, for instance, are two specimens. Both explain how to overcome a shortage of water, the first in washing, and the second in cooking dampers.
"The correct way to wash your hands in this country (owing to the scarcity of water) is to fill your mouth with water and then let a thin stream trickle on to your hands while you wash."
"Dampers we made very light by using bachem (toddy made from palms) in making the dough instead of water and putting in lots of baking-powder— let stand for an hour and then fry or, better, bake them by inverting an earthenware pot over a plate of them and standing them on hot wood-ashes and lighting a pyramid fire over the pot. If left all night they come out hard and crisp like husks and can be kept for days."
After this expedition B.-P. returned home, and for the next two years followed the usual round of regimental life in barracks, first at Norwich, then at Colchester, and later at Liverpool. As always, he worked hard at his profession, but he found time for his many other interests, especially for theatricals; he formed one of a party of amateurs who used to give plays at country houses. He took a great deal of trouble to make his parts as real as possible; thus on one occasion he was to act the role of a plumber, so he dressed in suitable clothes and spent some time amongst the workmen of the Commercial Road district in London to get local colour. Even this recreation had its bearing on his work as a scout and in secret service, for, as was shown in Natal, his ability to assume another character convincingly enabled him to deceive the most expert eye.
Then in 1887 came the opportunity for a change of work and of scene. His uncle, General Henry Smyth, a Crimean veteran, was appointed G.O.C. South Africa, and he invited his nephew to join his staff as his A.D.C. So B.-P. went to South Africa for the second time. His duties were not particularly interesting; in fact at times he was rather bored with the round of official engagements and functions; but he was soon called to action. Trouble had broken out in Zululand with the Chief Dinuzulu, and British troops under General Smyth, with B.-P. as Military Secretary, embarked for Natal. There was a brief preliminary expedition to rescue some British settlers up-country. It was then that B.-P. for the first time heard the Zulu impis chanting their Een-gonyama chorus; this so impressed him that in after years he adapted it for the use of the Boy Scouts, as can be seen in Scouting for Boys.
B.-P. next organized Intelligence work at G.H.Q., and then took part in the final rounding up of Dinuzulu, who had retreated to his stronghold, the Ceza Bush. This was a formidable place to attack, as it was situated on a steep mountain slope with the natural protection of bush and huge boulders and a ramification of caves. B.-P. did much of the preliminary scouting for information, and on one occasion narrowly escaped with his life. As he was scanning a valley from the cover of some rocks, his Basuto orderly suddenly called to him. He turned and found himself facing a Usutu warrior who had crept up from behind. In his note on the incident, B.-P. commented on the fine picture the man made "in all the glory of glistening brown skin, with his great shield of ox-hide and his bright assegai."
The Usutu warrior, seeing two men where he expected to find only one, fled. B.-P. followed him down and came to the uppermost entrance to a deep gully crammed with women and children and at the far end a group of warriors. B.-P. called to them to surrender, a summons which was quickly obeyed when a detachment of British soldiers came in sight. When he began to squeeze his way down, the women screamed with fright, but they were at once quietened when he picked up a small boy, perched him up on a rock and gave him something to play with.
Dinuzulu did not wait to be taken; he slipped out of the Ceza Bush with some of his warriors and crossed into the Transvaal; later he surrendered to the British.
For his part in this short campaign, B.-P. was promoted Brevet-Major. Soon he had another opportunity of getting to know the natives at close quarters. He served as Secretary on a Commission set up by the Boers and British together to settle disputes in Swaziland between the queen of that country and some unscrupulous white men who were grabbing land without giving just payment for it. The experience proved most interesting, for B.-P. was again brought into contact with leading Boers like General Joubert, and also came to know some of the strange customs of the Swazis. The king had just died, and it was usual for some of his wives and councillors to be executed at the same time so that their souls could attend him in the next world. The chief executioner was named Jokilobovu, and B.-P. drew a portrait of him. It was with some difficulty that the Commissioners persuaded the queen not to order the usual deaths, and even more difficult to stop the liquor traffic which was ruining the natives—as the land-grabbers well knew. But in the end a satisfactory settlement was reached.
In 1889 Sir Henry Smyth was transferred to Malta as Governor and Commander-in-Chief, and B.-P. again went with him. Once more he was engaged in the wearying round of official duties, diversified with theatrical shows and sports. It was by means of these entertainments that B.-P. raised enough money to help with the foundation of a Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Club, for he had noticed that the men had few opportunities for social life outside the barracks.
He found more attractive work when he was appointed Intelligence Officer for the Mediterranean; on holidays in foreign countries he had amused himself collecting information of military interest, and possibly his uncle thought it as well for him to have some official standing in case of trouble. His actor’s skill enabled him on many occasions to escape from awkward situations. Thus in Dalmatia he was trying to find some new batteries which had been constructed in the mountains. His disguise of a butterfly-hunting Englishman allayed any suspicions, and as he made his notes in the form of drawings of butterflies, there was nothing to betray him when his sketch-book was examined.
He studied the defences of the Dardanelles with the help of the Scotch captain of a grain ship. At places of importance anchor was dropped while the skipper’s "nephew" went fishing and took the opportunity of noting the positions of the forts. When patrol boats came to inquire why the ship was anchored, the officials were deafened by the sound of hammering from the engine-room and were told that the engines had broken down.
As an artist he was able to avoid arrest when he wanted to get some information about the Austrian Alpine troops. He found from a talkative soldier that maneuvers were to be carried out on the slopes of a mountain known as the Wolf’s Tooth. During the night he managed to slip through the sentries that had been posted to warn off strangers. As dawn broke he took up a concealed position that gave him a good view of the country, but unfortunately he was in the direct passage of a group of officers; so he boldly began sketching, and when questioned, explained that he was making studies for a picture of "Dawn among the Mountains." His skill was so obvious that the explanation was accepted. The officers shared their breakfast with him, and soon he was able to follow operations with the aid of their maps. By the end of the day he had learned all he wanted to know about the special methods devised for mountain warfare.
But exciting as such expeditions were, he had to think of the future, and on the advice of his old Colonel he resigned from his appointment as Military Secretary in Malta and set off to rejoin the 13th Hussars, then stationed in Ireland. On the way he visited Algeria and Tunisia; from Souk-el-Abra in Tunisia he wrote home:
"Here I am getting homewards by very small degrees, for, having got as far as this, I find maneuvers going on behind me and am just off back again to Tunis and Kairouen." He never missed an opportunity of adding to his knowledge of soldiering.