ON THE EDGE
Newcastle, Natal, Thursday, October 5, 1899.
Late last Sunday night I found myself slowly crawling towards the front from Pretoria in a commandeered train crammed full of armed Boers and their horses. I had rushed from the Cape to quiet little Bloemfontein, the centre of one of the best administered States in the world, where the heads of the nation in the intervals of discussing war proudly showed me their pianos, their little gardens, little libraries of English books, little museums of African beasts and Greek coins, and all their other evidences of advancing culture. Then on to Pretoria, the same kind of a town on a larger and richer scale—trim bungalow houses, for the most part, spread out among gardens full of roses, honeysuckle, and syringa. But at the station all day and night the scene was not idyllic. Every hour train after train moved away—stores and firewood in front, horses next, and luggage vans for the men behind. The partings from lovers and wives and children must be imagined. They are bad enough to witness when our own soldiers go to the front. But these men are not soldiers at all. Each of them came direct from his home in the town or on some isolated farm. They rode up, dressed just in their ordinary clothes, but for the slung Mauser and the full cartridge belt over the shoulder or round the waist. Except for a few gunners, there is no uniform in the Boer Army. Even the officers can hardly be distinguished from ordinary farmers. The only thing that could be called uniform is the broad-brimmed soft hat of grey or brown. But all Boers wear it. It is generally very stained and dirty, and invariably a rusty crape band is wound about the crown. For the Boer, like the English poorer classes, has large quantities of relations, and one of them is always dying.
By the courtesy of the Pretorian Government I had secured room in the guard’s van for myself and a companion, who was equally anxious to cross the Natal frontier before the firing began, and that was expected at any moment. In the van with us were a score of farmers from Middleburg way, their contingent occupying four trains with about 800 men and horses. For the most part they were fine tall men with shaggy light beards, reminding one of Yorkshire farmers, but rougher and not so well dressed. Most of them could speak some English, and many had Scotch or English relatives. They lay on the floor or sat on the edge of the van, talking quietly and smoking enormous pipes. All deeply regretted the war, regretted the farm left behind just when spring and rain are coming, and they were full of foreboding for the women and children left at the mercy of Kaffirs. There was no excitement or shouting or bravado of any kind. So we travelled into the night, the monotony only broken by one violent collision which shook us all flat on the floor, while arms and stores fell crashing upon us. In the silent pause which followed, whilst we wondered if we were dead, I could hear the Kaffirs chattering in their mud huts close by, and in the distance a cornet was playing “Home, Sweet Home,” with variations.