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Chapter V The Outpost

IF you have ridden all day through the Bush with the thermometer at one hundred and five degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, you are naturally pleased at sundown when you dimly realise that here at last is rest, and a temporary cessation of the overpowering attentions of the flies. You swing to the ground, glad to stretch your cramped limbs, slip the saddle from the hack, and the pack-saddle from the pack-horse—tumbling them anyhow on the grass—and proceed to hobble the horses. You collect little sticks, and make a fire; spread out your blankets, and watch the quart boil; put in the tea, and thank God that, for eight or nine hours the small worries of life on the road will not beset you. You take your hat off, and feel at peace with all men.

To you enter a confounded hairy man. In language less polite than to the point he intimates that you have camped in his cultivation paddock; that your parentage is doubtful, and your bringing-up disastrous; that he has never in his life beheld a

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person so divinely dowered with impudence as yourself; and that he will not feel obliged to you if you remove yourself and your belongings elsewhere. He will in no wise feel hurt if you decide to deny his paddock the benefit of your presence for the night, in fact he insists upon your doing so.

You point out to him that nothing remains of the finest wheat crop in the district save stubble, that the water-hole in his creek is the only water to be met with in many miles, that you are exceedingly fatigued, and that he is a d——d ill-grained swine. Which latter statement does not placate him, and you are obliged to go.

It is your own fault. When you jumped that dogleg fence you knew well that you ran the risk of subsequent ejection by a hairy man. Trespass was writ large in barbed-wire. It is no more than you might have expected. Nevertheless, it is the Dead Finish.

When you have ridden all day across the veldt, with the strength of your mount at one quarter horse-power, you are not sorry when the Adjutant demands ‘markers’ from your corps to align the position of your horse-lines in the camping-ground. You may have been scouting half the day. You may have been ‘drawing fire,’ or fighting a wearisome and desultory rear-guard action. Your rations may have been in the raw, as uncooked meat and flour; and by reason of not having had sufficient halting space all

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day to prepare them for consumption, you may have gone hungry. You may have been looking forward to getting the burden of saddlery and kit off your weary beast, and giving him to eat what little of oats remains in your attenuated feed-bag. You may have been fortunate in the matter of loot, and have a fowl in your haversack, together with a few potatoes and a little mealie-meal in your wallets. The bandolier, with sixty cartridges, and water-bottle, and haversack will have been cramping your shoulders. You are looking forward to a good ‘feed,’ and a subsequent pipe beside the fire you are going to kindle out of the fence-post you have carried in front of you for the last hour or more. And then the fine sleep you will have—the welcome, friendly forgetfulness—when you can dream that you are back again in a land of peace once more, where there are no homes wrecked, and you must go out of your way a little to stumble across misery and distress.

When you have found your lines, and driven in your picket-peg with the hilt of your sword, and unstrapped your overcoat and rear-pack, and taken off your saddle and ‘dressed’ it with the others in a line in front of the horses, under the direction of a pedantically accurate sergeant-major, you feel that here, at least, is peace, that for a few precious hours you will be left to yourself and the attendance upon your own very pressing personal needs.

To you enter an execrable hairy man. In brief

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but unanswerable terms he warns your troop for ‘outpost’. As an afterthought, he enjoins upon you the necessity for ‘looking slippery’. Your single swearword speaks volumes. You will roll your coat again; you will strap up your rear-pack; you will adjust the many-buckled saddlery; you will don the harness of water-bottle, and haversack, and bandolier once more. You will mount and ride again, and above all you will look forward joylessly to a night without food or fire, and an interrupted sleep. This again is the Dead Finish.

There are few colloquialisms more expressive of wearisome disgust, dissatisfaction and discontent than is ‘Dead Finish’. It is almost synonymous with ‘the Last Straw’.

The troop goes out. There are twelve men, a sergeant and a couple of corporals with a subaltern officer in charge. Everything is carried as on the march. The Adjutant will accompany your officer to point out to him the position you are to take up. It is almost dark. Behind, as you ride out over the veldt, glimmer the little fires of the bivouac, and the subdued hum is wafted to you of thousands of men busy with the preparation of their evening meal.

A simultaneous whinny from the lines tells you that the feed-bags are being put upon the horses. The metallic click-click-click of a picket-peg being driven in sounds faint and far away. Presently you rise over what is the skyline from the camp, and are alone

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in the night. Miles and miles ahead a single starlike gleam marks some far off Boer watch-fire. Out in the east, over the long kopje of the day's work, the sky is paling. There will be moonlight soon.

What a deuce of a distance we are going out to-night! It seems hours and hours since we saddled up disgustedly and left the lines—the luxurious lines, where there is food, and rest, and sleep. There will be an issue of bully-beef to-night, and we shall miss it. If the carts come up, it is rum night. We shall miss that also. D——n outpost! D——n everything! What is it all worth—this weary, worked out, unsatisfactory old war? Why not have stayed at home, and lived the old life unbrokenly? We would be sitting down to dinners and teas now—in clean shirts and more or less fine raiment. There would have been a good smoke, a game of billiards, a theatre, a dance, music, newspapers—and then, a warm bed with clean sheets on it. Think of it—clean sheets! Clean sheets and a full stomach—surely that is heaven!

Why couldn't England have ‘bucked up’ and fought her old war herself? We're not getting anything out of it. We're losing time, and money, and place. We have made ourselves liable to be spoken to as though we were serfs and not free Australians by any bumptious boy calling himself ‘Second Lieutenant’. Second Lieutenant! Ye gods—by any ‘bounder’ of a sergeant-major, by any cocky

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corporal, by any new-chum wearer of the lance stripe. We have dug latrines, and buried mules, and made graves. We are crawling with vermin. We are tired, and stiff, and hungry, and we are going out ‘on outpost’.

Why did we ever come? This isn't charging into battle. This isn't racing through a flying foe. This isn't getting the Victoria Cross. Where is all the ‘pomp and circumstance of war’? Where are the bands and the martial music to play us into action? Where are the clouds of drifting smoke we've read about? Where's that ‘thin red line,’ and all those gorgeous uniforms that used to make war picturesque, and romantic, and spectacular? Where's anything but dirt, and discomfort, and starvation, and nigger-driving? Who wants to participate in a shabby war like this?

Oh, you growling swine, Tommy Cornstalk! If you had been rejected, been sent home from Randwick because of your varicose vein or your hollow tooth; fallen off your horse in the riding test, or failed to hit the target when you were tried on the range—you know well what it would have meant. Can't you think of how you would have gone back to the station or the township, downcast and shame-faced? Don't you remember how lucky you thought you were when you marched down George Street to the ‘trooper’? What about the hour or two when all the people were howling mad over you, when the

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girls you didn't know came and kissed you, when the effusive males who didn't go themselves handed you bottles of beer to quench the magnificent thirst you had cultivated betwixt the barracks and the boat? How did you feel then? Don't you really—deep down in your heart—consider that you are getting your reward?

Isn't it something to be marching, and fighting, and starving with these Englishmen? Supposing that they are the scum of England—if they are—isn't it something for a one-horse volunteer crowd like you to be a squadron of such a regiment as the one you are with—a regiment which was fighting before there was an Australia, a regiment which saw Waterloo and Balaclava? And another thing—isn't it something to have shown a regiment like that how to scout, how to take cover, how to ride, how to shoot; how, in short, to play this particular game as it should be played, and in the only way by which there is possibility of success? Isn't that something, you discontented dog?

Go—go out to your comfortless outpost. Have no supper. Make no fire. Just take your two hours' watch, and your four hours' sleep in your lousy blanket, and thank God that you are privileged to be here—yes, privileged—instead of reading about it in newspapers and books, and not knowing.

The position assigned to the outpost is just below the skyline of another ridge. One can hardly speak

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of these almost invisible elevations as ‘ridges’. The plain, when you ride over it, seems nearly quite level, and viewed from afar it seems to be so also; but there are little watersheds in it which form the ridges and the valleys, and the dongas in the valleys. If you are on a crest, you see more land, and the horizon is farther off than when you are below it. It is not unlike a calm sea, with just a long swell humping it up into faintly visible hillsides of wave and trough—level as a whole, but not in detail. An outpost placed upon the summit of one of these ‘waves’ would be conspicuous against the sky to an enemy approaching from the front. Accordingly, it is usually stationed a hundred or two hundred yards below the crest, and sentries are placed out far enough to command a view of the country from which attack may be expected. When you have come to your allotted place in the ring of outposts you are ‘numbered off’ from the right.

“One, two and three—first relief; four, five and six—second relief; seven, eight and nine—third relief,” says the sergeant. That is to say, that the first three men will furnish the first round of sentries, who will do duty for two hours until relieved by the second group. Their places, in turn, will be taken by the third. Thus, the first sentries will have four hours in which to sleep before being called up again. Each corporal will take one of two of the remaining, and patrol between his own and the next post at

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three—or four—hourly intervals. The odd man will be kept as an emergency. He is liable to be called and sent out at any hour, but as a rule has a full night's sleep. His is the lightest ‘duty’ in the outpost, but may quite easily become the hardest, according to circumstances.

From a larger outpost, ‘Cossack posts’ are often sent out. A ‘Cossack-post’ consists of a N.C.O. and three men, who picket their horses a considerable distance from the main post, and provide one sentry at a time. They are usually placed in isolated positions, where it would be unwise to risk a larger body of men, or between two posts, when the distance separating them is greater than usual.

The two first sentries are stationed some two hundred yards out in front, and from two to four hundred yards apart. The third man of the relief watches over the horses, and is ready to rouse his sleeping comrades in case of an alarm. He carries a time-piece, if such a thing is available, and, five minutes before his two hours expire, calls the sergeant, who posts the next three men. Each of the corporals takes his man and rides out to find the right or left-hand post—a by no means easy task in this open veldt, where an absence of landmarks and similarity of country tax one's powers of ‘bushcraft’ to the utmost. After placing his sentries, and giving them the countersign, the officer in charge returns to his post with the sergeant. The sergeant's duties for

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the remainder of the night consist of ‘marching’ the reliefs every two hours. He is also responsible to the officer for the conduct of affairs, and the correct timing of the goings out of the ‘reliefs’ and ‘patrols’.

The moon has risen over the dark hump of the long kopje. The worn out, still saddled horses cast weird shadows over the grass—one or two lying down, the others forlornly engaged in cropping so much of it around their pegs as the head-ropes will allow. The men have put on their overcoats—those excellent cavalry cloaks which are the best part of the equipment—and are busy unrolling waterproof sheets and in slipping their blankets from beneath the saddle. Strictly, the blankets should remain where they have been all day, but these nights are too cold to lie down without some means of warmth other than this cloak, and so the loss of them is risked by their owners. Should the post be rushed, or attacked, there would be no time to remove the saddles and replace the blankets beneath them, and they would have to be abandoned, unless carried away on their owners' arms. Fortunately, however, for the comfort of outposts, Boers do not often attack. When they do, there is usually no ‘get away’.

The outpost is tired to-night, and does not talk much. There has been no tea, because it was too late to light fires. Nothing to eat, either, but a possible biscuit. Some one was to have come from the camp with bully-beef, but seems to have lost the way,

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or not to have started. So it is a far from hilarious outpost. A man is speaking in low tones on the subject of dealing with coloured races.

“W'en me brother Mick was in Mason's survey camp—doin' axeman—he come across a cove out near Walgett who had a black feller with him drovin'. This bloke useter bring cattle in from Queensland ter Muswellbrook. Went by the name o' Kale—K-a-l-e—rum name. Useter give th' nigger a quid a month and his rations. Good enough for a nigger, too.

“Ev'ry now 'n-then, th' nigger useter wanter be settled up with, an' Kale'd look at a book an' pretend to be squarin' up his account. ‘Well, Jacky,’ Kale'd say, ‘y’ got a pound er terbacca on the fifteenth?’—‘Yes, that right,’ Jacky'd say. ‘Well, that's a pound y' got, an' a pound y' didn't get, ain't it?’—‘Yes, alright,’ Jacky'd say. ‘That's two pound, ain't it?’ Kale'd arst him.—‘Yes, that right,’ Jacky'd say. ‘That's eight bob,’ Kale'd say.

“ ‘Well, Jacky, here's another item,’ Kale'd say. ‘You got five bob on the twenty-first?’—‘Yes.’ ‘Well, that's five bob you got, an' five bob you didn't get, eh?’—‘That right.’ ‘Well, that's ten bob,’ Kale'd say.

“ ‘On the thirtieth y' got a dozen o' matches,’ Kale'd say.—‘Yes, that right,’ Jacky'd say. ‘That's a dozen y' got, an' a dozen y' didn't get, ain't it now?’—‘Yes, that right, Mista Kale,’ Jacky'd say.

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“ ‘Well, that's nineteen bob, ain't it?’—‘Yes, that right.’ ‘Well here's th' balance, Jacky. Don't get drunk on it,’ Kale'd say—an' gave the pore dam nigger a bob. The black boy'd wonder how it was he never seemed to have anything owing to him, but he was too ‘plurry plash’ to let on he didn't know all about it.

“Now, all niggers are too ‘plurry plash,’ so I carn't make out w'y the English Government gives these drivers on our transport four-ten a month w'en they could get 'em for a quid, an' dust 'em down over that too. Y' mus' keep niggers down. If y' let a nigger think he's 's good's a white man, y' can't do nothing with him.

“Now, there's that cove Frank on our cart. All that push that play cards under the cart of a night lets him chip in. They say to him: ‘Y’ black swine!’—an' he answers back an' calls 'em ‘white swine,’ an' they on'y laugh. Frank was goin' inter Bloemfontein one day, an' he met a bloke from the ‘Carles,’ an' seys, ‘Hullo, you white swine!’ So the bloke from the ‘Carles’ up an' knocks him down. I reckon Frank was never more s'prised in his life. He jus' lay there hollerin', an' singing out: ‘All right, baas, I didn't say it again, I didn't say it again’. But it was their fault—those coves that'd encouraged him to reckon he could chaff any white——” and so forth.

You may light your pipe before turning in, if you like, provided that you do not make too great a glare

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of light. You must cover your head with the blanket when you strike the match. What a blessed thing tobacco is, after you have got past the first sharp stage of hunger! If you smoke a pipe, and tighten your belt a hole or two, you may imagine you have eaten a good dinner—supposing you have a very vivid imagination.

Soon every one on the post is sleeping the deep, wholesome sleep of the thoroughly tired. You go to bed with your bandolier on, and your carbine close at hand, on outpost. Neither do you remove boots or spurs. The sentry on the horse lines walks up and down, and prays for relief.

Down where the other sentries are it is very still and lonely. Of all the occupations of active service to which the private soldier is liable, there is none so arduous and responsible as that of a sentry on the line of outposts. He is in the front rank of the army. Nothing lies between him and the enemy. On his alertness rest the safety and the lives of his comrades. They may only sleep securely if he be wakeful and watchful. If he sleep, if he relax in his vigilant outlook he endangers not only his own worthless self, but his comrades in the outpost, the Brigade behind him, the Army itself—even the Empire, when it only needs another reverse or two to draw the intervention of a foreign power.

There is no offence in the calendar of soldier's crimes more heinous or far-reaching in its possible

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consequences than a sentry's neglect of his duty. No punishment can be too great for the man who sleeps upon his post. There can be no excuse, no extenuating circumstances. Even should he be kept awake for seven nights in succession, he should be shot without mercy if he slumber on the eighth, whilst a sentry in a responsible position. One may be sorry for him. His may be the hardest and most pitiable case in the world, but his punishment should be death—not so much because of the actual personal offence of which he has been guilty, as for an example to deter other men from doing likewise.

And, strange as it may seem, this is the actual view of nearly every soldier in the army. There was a story at Modder River of a man who slumbered on his post and was awarded seven years' gaol, whilst his friends—the men of his own regiment—clamoured for his death.

A sentry who sleeps on his post has committed the unpardonable sin. On the other hand, it is almost as criminal for a commanding officer to detail men who have not recently had a fair amount of rest for this onerous duty as it is for the sentry to sleep. Sentry-duty should not come more frequently than once in three nights.

You begin your watch heavy with sleep. That is the dangerous period, when you are most liable to yield. You hear the sergeant and the man whose place you have taken ‘swish-swishing’ through the

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grass back to the post. You are hardly awake yet. The sergeant has warned you not to stand upright as a mark for possible ‘snipers,’ but you feel yourself that to sit down would be almost to court slumber. So you walk up and down, with your carbine at the ‘support’ across your body, and your face turned Boerwards half-interestedly. You stumble over tussocks of grass and bump into ant-hills, and wonder vaguely why you are there and whether the time will pass quickly until your turn comes for more sleep. By-and-bye a realisation that the night is cold, and sharp, and frosty thoroughly awakens you.

The moon, well in its third quarter, is flooding all the veldt with its silvery illusive light. The long kopje looms up under it—black, mysterious, ominous. Away, very far away in the distance, the range of hills you had seen when scouting this afternoon—or was it yesterday afternoon?—rises, light-bathed and ethereal, out of a low-lying sea of faint white mist. To the rear, a few thinly twinkling points of light mark a wing of the British camp—Hutton's Brigade probably. You cannot see your own. The outpost is not visible either from where you are. On your right, a tiny black spot shows the position of the other sentry. The uncanny stillness of the night gets on to your nerves. You feel terribly alone.

You see something dark and dim out in the long grass. It is vague, ill-defined, shadowy. What can it be? For a moment it looks like a crouching man.

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You half-expect the flash of a rifle and the sing of a bullet. You watch, and watch, and strain your eyes with watching—until they fill with tears, and you have to rub them clear again. There is another one five yards away, and another to the other side, and another, and another—a whole line of silently advancing Boers!

How uncertain this moonlight is! Is it time to fire? If one could only consult with the other sentry about them. What is he doing? The silly fool seems to be just walking up and down. Can't he see them? Won't it be better to shoot first and challenge after?

The long range of hills afar off flickers, and curls and warps up into the sky as your eyes swim again. They must be men, but why don't they advance, or fire, or do something?

You kneel down in the grass and rest your carbine over an ant-hill, and then you silhouette the square top of a stone fence-post against the sky, and wonder why you didn't think of it before, and the other Boers evolve themselves into stone fence-posts too.

Half an hour must be gone by now—no, three-quarters. It seems ages since the sergeant went away. If one could only do something to keep back the sleepiness. It is cold sitting down, too. You get up and walk again.

How about a smoke? Risky, reprehensible—but you must have one. It doesn't do to show a light

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towards the outpost, lest the lieutenant see you and become annoyed. It won't do to show one to the front, lest the Boers be close at hand and fire possible volleys. So you fill your pipe—a difficult matter when your fingers are frozen stiff. What of matches? There are some loose in your haversack—the last of their kind. They are wooden ones, but you have a bit of striking paper from the side of the box stowed away in your helmet. You crouch down behind an ant-heap. Then you lay your helmet on the ground with the apex pointing to your front. Unbuttoning your overcoat, you pull the collar up over your head. Kneeling, you strike the match in the helmet, and puff vigorously at the pipe. With your hand over the bowl, you rise up cautiously. The white smoke curls up into the frosty moonlight. You feel more wakeful and content.

It must be freezing now. Down in Bloemfontein people had said, “Wait until you start again in the winter. That's when you'll feel it. Why, half the army will be frozen to death before you cross the Vaal—and when you do cross it, and get into the High Veldt, you won't be able to live for cold.” And it is cold. But gloriously healthy. Use accustoms you to it. Were one sleeping in a warm house every night, it would be suicide, almost, to lie out with only one thin blanket in these white frosts, but after three or four months of roofless, open-air living it is no great hardship. Except when it rains.

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Something is coming over the veldt up on your left—two men on horseback, talking together in low tones. The patrol coming in. Up they ride to within fifty yards of you. You challenge: “Halt! who goes there?”—“Friends.” “Advance one and give the countersign.” One of them rides slowly on, the other remaining where he is. “Pelican,” says the corporal; “warm weather, ain't it?” His companion rides past, and they return to the outpost. You envy them.

Amongst the many stories which one heard of a certain well-advertised London volunteer corps, it was related that a member of it, being on ‘sentry-go,’ was approached in the ‘wee sma’ hours' by his commanding officer. The sentry was not able, by reason of an impediment in his speech, to challenge properly. “S-t-t-op! w-h-o-'s that?” he inquired nervously. “Friend,” came the reply. “M-m-m-well, c-c-come up to the counter, and sign”!

In the fulness of time, after you have been thinking that all upon the post are asleep, and yourself a fixture until morning, you descry the relief coming out. You challenge, and get the countersign as a matter of form, and then go back to your downy couch. If you haven't taken the precaution to cover up your blanket with the waterproof sheet, you will find it wet with frost when you crawl beneath it.

Four more hours, and you are out again. It seems like five minutes since you came in. Your first watch

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was from ten o'clock until twelve. You have slept from midnight to four in the morning. And the end of this two hours brings you to the new day. You are relieved just in time to roll your coat and replace it upon the saddle, and to adjust your blanket and waterproof sheet. No time to light fires—the Brigade is moving early. So, if you possess a biscuit, you eat it as you prepare to move off, and mount and ride again upon an unfed horse—which is the ‘crown of a sorrow's sorrow’.

Once an outpost of Australians were doing duty near Boesman's Kop by Bloemfontein. There were no rations, nor any apparent prospect of any. A cow at daylight passed close by a sentry on her way to water at a dam. A happy thought came to him—that cow was probably a Boer. So he decided to take no risks, and shot her dead. There were rations that day. They came from the cow, in the shape of beefsteaks. How was the sentry to know, when the cow didn't answer his challenge, that she was not a kind of ‘wooden horse of Troy’? He could risk no surprises.