BISHOP'S HOUSE, MARITZBURG, Friday, Sep. 29, 1899.
NONE of us here can think or write of anything but one subject--the prospect of war--and that will have been settled one way or the other before you get this. Nearly all our friends in the regiments here have already left Ito be nearer the border. It has been a very touching sight last week and this to see the departure of the men amidst immense enthusiasm on the part of the crowds, but very different feelings on the part of wives and children, who cannot tell when or whether they will see them again. On Monday last I went to the station to see the 60th Rifles and part of the 5th Lancers entrained. The men were carried in open trucks, which had been fitted up with benches and a sort of scaffolding round the sides, with a beam for a back to the seats--not a very comfortable method of spending the night in the train, but fortunately the weather was fine. These troops were going to take the place at Ladysmith of those who, the night before, had been quietly and swiftly moved from Ladysmith to Glencoe. The order for this move was only given at 8 on Sunday night, and the troops were in the train by 2 a.m., and in their new camp by 6 on Monday morning. These consist of battalions of the Leicestershire Regiment, the Dublin Fusiliers, and the 18th Hussars, besides one or two batteries of artillery, and some engineers. I am hoping to go up on Saturday night with the General to pay them a visit and hold a church parade on Sunday, if things are then still as they are now; but we cannot tell, from day to day, what may happen. We have all sorts of rumours as to Boer raids into Natal, as to native risings, etc., but the recollection of many colonists of similar rumours and alarms at the time of the former wars here serves to reassure us a little.
As to the ethics of the question, which after all is the matter that supremely concerns us, my own tendency has always been to distrust anything like Jingoism, and I felt and spoke strongly at the time of the Jameson Raid, both as to the method and the motive. I could not feel sure that that was a genuine uprising of the people, or, at all events, that it was not being exploited for the purposes of capitalists. But I am thankful to feel free from such suspicions this time. My recent visit to Cape Town, and my immense confidence in Sir Alfred Milner, from long acquaintance, have satisfied me that the case for firm and effective interference is now overwhelmingly strong. We cannot be the paramount power, and decline the responsibilities of the position. The time has really come now for us to decide between two possible lines of policy: either to leave South Africa to settle its own affairs, and allow it to become, as it then probably would, an Africander Federation, or else to accept the responsibility of our present position, and say plainly that that position is inconsistent with the existence of oppression practised on Englishmen. There is no third course open to us.
The expedient which the second line of policy seems likely to entail is indeed a terrible one. No one can face war without a sense of its awfulness; no one but must feel that it is the clumsiest and most barbarous method of arbitration. But if through weakness and shrinking from the horrors of war we allowed things to slip into a state of anarchy, having let the possible moment for effective interference pass away, the sufferings, the bitterness, the protracted conflicts which might be the consequence would in all probability be far worse than such a war as now seems to be at hand. Indeed, we cling to the hope that the home Government has profited by the experience of the past enough to be preparing to carry out this campaign on a scale which shall insure, so far as human preparations can do so, that it shall be short and conclusive. God give us all grace to keep our heads, to sternly repress the unworthy feelings of race hatred, of vain longing for revenge or retaliation, and so overrule even the evils of war for our good that it may in the end lead to a truer brotherhood and a firm and righteous rule, and to the extension of His Kingdom among both white and black South Africans.
On this very day I travelled up through the night to Glencoe and Dundee. Our much-loved and lamented General, Sir William Penn Symons, had very kindly suggested that we should travel up and down together; but as he could not start till Saturday night, I preferred to go on a day sooner so as to get a little longer with the troops and not have to preach immediately after a night journey in the train, so I went on on the Friday and he followed on the Saturday. It was a very little force which we then had at Glencoe--only two infantry battalions--the Dublin Fusiliers and the Leicestershire--and one cavalry regiment, the i8th Hussars, and a single battery of artillery. As the Boers had a dashing commander, one could not but feel that then was their chance. They were said to be in considerable numbers just across the Buffalo, not more than sixteen miles away. Indeed, a farmer rode in through the night to say that we were certainly going to be attacked next morning. However, war had not then been declared, and the idea of their attacking us was not seriously entertained. On the Saturday I was able to see something of some of the men in camp as well as of some of the Dundee people. And on the Sunday morning we had a church parade. The weather was threatening; but it did not get beyond a slight mist. I felt at the time that I was speaking to some who would be very soon facing for themselves the mysteries of death, and that which lies beyond it. And it proved to be so. The text was "Stand fast in the Lord, My dearly beloved."
In the afternoon I returned to the camp, and with the General made a tour of the different regiments. He had an eye for everything, and above all was continually considering all possible ways of promoting the comfort of the men and saving them from any unnecessary labour. He would not have them stand to attention as he moved about the tamp. He evidently foresaw what was the work they would soon have to do, for he said to Major Bird, who was commanding the Dublin Fusiliers, "I want you to practise your men in trying to get to the top of that hill (pointing to the slopes of Imparti) without exposing themselves, taking advantage of every bit of cover, so that if possible they shall get to the top without being seen from it." In the evening I preached in the church to a full congregation, consisting largely of men, for already a certain number of the ladies had left.
Next morning the General and I left again for Maritzburg. I looked out on all the surrounding hills with a special interest, wondering which would become famous as a battlefield. I asked him if our position would not become untenable if there were an enemy with guns on the Impart! Mountain. He said we might surround the whole hill and take their guns, and so perhaps we might have done if we had had the necessary number of troops. As it was, the victory of Talana was only gained because of the fortunate coincidence that the top of Imparti was veiled in mist all that day. I am told that General Symons was very eager to get the fight of Talana over, lest that most fortunate mist should lift and so unveil the enemy's big guns which they were known to have mounted there. On that Monday morning, as the train steamed away from the siding near the camp, Colonel Moller, who was then in command of the little force, waved an adieu to General Symons, "Come back soon and come to stay," words which were pathetically prophetic.
The journey down had a special interest. First we joined at Glencoe one of the crowded refugee trains from Johannesburg. The poor people had been nearly three days on the journey, though, as it turned out two days later, they were fortunate to get carriages at all, and not dirty coal trucks as others had. Then, too, we were joined by Major Henderson of the Intelligence Department, and he had interesting news to tell us of the movements of the enemy, of which he knew much from his own observations in a ride all down the border. And then again the Volunteers had just been called out, and all the way down we passed them as they were taking up their quarters in the various positions to which they were assigned. We looked at many points that have since become famous. We watched the crowded platform at Ladysmith, where Volunteers of various regiments were getting their things into order, and we saw their camp quite near. We hardly realized then that in a few weeks that very platform was to be shattered by shells and to be inaccessible to any of us in Maritzburg.
At Colenso we watched the first beginnings of the erection of what has since been called Fort Wylie, just above the Tugela railway bridge, on the north side of it. We little thought then that this was being erected as a stronghold for the Boers which an English army of 15,000 men would be unable to take. We saw the Naval Volunteers dragging their guns into position. I think we regarded all this as a rather amusing and harmless diversion, calculated to reassure people's minds while keeping the Volunteers usefully employed until they were wanted for real work at the front. I do not think that anyone in Natal then realized that this, and not Glencoe or Laing's Nek was to be the "front." That day in the train is one that will long live in my memory. The General and I had the carriage to ourselves (Major Henderson having left us at Ladysmith), and all the way down we had long and interesting discussions on the position, both political and military. The Indian contingent was just about to arrive, and I, at least, with all an Englishman's complacent optimism, felt that when once it had arrived our position was assured, even if it were not so already. I did not, indeed, suppose that we could take the offensive till the Army Corps from England arrived, but I took it for granted that the papers were right in assuming that the Indian reinforcements were ample to check any hostile movement into Natal on the part of the Boers. It is rather sad, but at the same time instructive reading, now to look back to the papers of that time. They all assured us that the force we had would be ample to prevent any little raiding that the Boers might attempt.
From this point the interest in the situation quickened rapidly. A few days later we had the arrival of Generals Sir George White and Sir Archibald Hunter and General Yule and General Wolfe Murray. It was a very interesting evening I spent at Government House on the day of their arrival, sitting next to General Hunter, and having long and interesting talks with him about both the Sudan and Natal. On October 9th came the astounding "Ultimatum," and the very next day the starting of this illustrious group of officers for the front. As I said "Good-bye" to General White on the station platform, I knew from both his manner and his words, more than I had realized before, how grave was the task which lay before him, though even then I think we should have smiled incredulously at any prophet who had told us that for three months at least we should have no chance of seeing any of these again.
Then followed days of anxious waiting as we felt the opposing forces gradually creeping near to each other, and watched for the first flash of the first cannon. There were rumours of the Free State Boers threatening Ladysmith from the west, and moves and counter-moves of the Ladysmith force and its outposts to get at them. Then came the brush with the Carbineers, in which Lieut. Gallwey, the son of our Chief Justice, was taken prisoner. And then in quick succession the exciting telegrams about Talana, Elandslaagte, and Rietfontein, and we hoped that another fight or two would break the back of the Boer attack. Even then we had little idea of what lay before us. The first awakening to the actual position was probably the retirement from Dundee. It was a magnificently executed manoeuvre, thanks, I fancy, chiefly to Colonel Dartnell, of the Natal Mounted Police, but it showed us what the enemy we were facing was like, that we had thus to retire and concentrate. Then came the doubtful day of Lombard's Kop and the news of the surrender of the two half battalions of the Gloucesters and the Irish Fusiliers, and about the same time the official confirmation of what we had practically known for certain some time before--the loss of the squadron of the 18th Hussars and the mounted infantry under Colonel Moller after the battle of Talana Hill.
From this point things got steadily worse, though with occasional gleams of sunshine. There was the investment of Ladysmith, the retirement from Colenso, the raiding in the neighbourhood of Estcourt, the gradual influx of the Boers on each side till Estcourt, too, was cut off, the attack (a faint one, it is true) on Mooi River, and the possibility, coming more and more within the horizon of practical politics, of the invasion of Maritzburg. And then, too, there was the disaster of the armoured train. Its redeeming feature was the heroic bravery of Mr. Winston Churchill, which impressed every single man who was present; but it rubbed in the obvious fact that the blunders were always on our side, and never on that of the Boers. The chief gleam of sunshine during this rather gloomy time was the night attack on Willow Grange by General Hildyard. Though much complicated by the terrible hailstorm of that night and other difficulties, it had evidently a very considerable moral effect on the Boers, and from that moment the ebb of their flowing tide began. Very soon they were back again beyond the Tugela, and the line was free for us to repair and use right up to Frere.