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Chapter VI The Bivouac

THIS morning the place was bare, and empty, and desolate, save for the white farmhouse beside the great stone-banked dam—and it added, if anything, to the desolation.

Some ‘Jan’ or ‘Piet’ had come galloping across the veldt at noon with news of oncoming rooineks, who poured over the country like a swarm of locusts, eating up and devouring everything that lay in its path—ruthless, overpowering, merciless alike to women, and children, and aged people.

They were so many nothing could stand against them. Their shrapnel searched every kopje and cluster of rocks. They had left the railway, and were sweeping on alone in the open veldt. It was not true that the Englishmen got lost and died when they went away from the railway. It was not true that they had used up all the horses from England before they had come to Bloemfontein. All those men had horses—many horses, and waggons, and cannon. Yesterday they had fired a Maxim-Nordenfeldt into


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Sarel Du Ploy's garden, and had killed Tantie Du Ploy's best cow.

It was not true that they had no Maxim-Nordenfeldts. They had one, at any rate, for a little devil had cut his hat's rim—here, at the side. See it!

Tantie must trek. The Kaffirs must inspan the oxen. There was no time. Even now, their scouts were not two hours away. Yes, yes—she must go. Would she wait to be misused by these ‘verdomde rooineks’? Would she wish to see her babies tossed on the spear-heads of the wicked lancers, her home rent, and riven, and burnt over her head?

White flags! What of white flags? They no longer cared about them. Why, they had had three of them over Du Ploy's chimneys when they fired upon the English scouts—and yet the little devils of Maxim-Nordenfeldts had come—crack-crack-crack—into the garden, and they had had to run like Kaffirs to get away from them. The Englishmen had become ‘slim’ themselves in the matter of white flags. Last week a lyddite bomb had blown to pieces Hans Larsen and his son, as they fired from a kraal over which they had taken the precaution to mount a white shirt. No, she must not talk—she must trek.

It is that ‘kerel’ French who is coming, and, almighty, but he comes quickly, and no one knows whence. He must be off soon to warn others. Let her inspan at once. It was no time for waiting.

And the poor woman has inspanned, and piled her


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best belongings, with her babies, on the waggons; and has gone, white-faced but unweeping, before the vague terror of the accursed rooinek, whom, the predicant has told her, knows no respect for wife, or maiden, or mother, or little child. And to-night her house shelters a General of Division.

From the little farm it must seem a strangely altered scene this evening. Where, at sunrise, a few oxen grazed quietly, and were the only living things for many miles, the veldt is covered by a great gathering of men and horses. Away to the left, the blue smoke of another great camp hangs like a thin veil above the land, and, back in the rear, there is another brigade guarding the immense convoy which keeps on coming in until long after dark.

Our own camp is half a mile long or more; and nearly as deep as long, with its guns, and waggons, and red cross ambulances. Mules linked together in fours and fives are being driven to water by yelling and screaming Kaffir boys. The far side of the big dam in the hollow is fringed with drinking, bare-backed horses. Wild-looking men in khaki chase squawking fowls about the huts of the Kaffir farm-servants. An unkempt ruffian in a torn shirt is cutting the throat of a squealing pig behind the house. Horses are tied to the big willow tree.

Red lapelled staff officers come and go from the front rooms. Now and then a dapper little man in yellow riding boots walks out upon the stoep, and


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says something that causes men to spring to take papers from his hand, and mount, and ride away at breakneck speed. An anxious-looking colonel dismounts stiffly from his horse, hands the reins to a trumpeter who has come with him, and walks inside. Soon he reappears with the dapper General, talking quickly in a low voice. The General holds a half-unrolled map in his hand. He spreads it out on his knee, uses his forefinger as an emphatic pointer, and appears to be insisting upon something. The colonel smiles and nods, and seems to have comprehended. Whereat the little red-faced, stout man is apparently pleased. He goes inside again with a cheery “All-right. Good-night.” Johnny French must have another of those wonderful movements of his simmering in his brain.

Somehow, French doesn't strike you with any idea of his being the smart man he is—except when you notice the shrewd, twinkling little eyes that seem to take in everything about him. He certainly does not look the ideal cavalry leader. There is nothing of the Brigadier Gerard in his appearance. Short, dumpy, jaunty—sitting a horse rather like the proverbial sack o' flour; if you saw him booted and spurred in Cape Town you would almost put him down as a colonel of infantry, who had learned to ride from a Red-Book in a riding-school at considerable pains. And yet, they say he is a hunting man, and rides straight enough. In dress and person he is


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always neat. When you salute him he returns it courteously with a smiling face. When he finds fault there is, one hears, no mistaking his meaning. Staff-signallers will tell you that his vocabulary does not lack of means of emphasis. They relate a tale of how he had once spoken to a luckless Brigadier who had contrived to mask the guns of ‘French's Pets’ in a certain action, and it was said that the recipient of his address seemed to pray for the advent of a six-inch shell by way of a change of subject. It was probably not true, but they report him to have inquired sarcastically as to whether the Brigadier was of any possible use whatever, whether he could lead ducks any better than he could lead cavalry, and to have finished with a simple statement to the effect that the youngest subaltern in the other Brigade could lead that of the gentleman in question better far than he could himself.

He is a wonderful little man. Except in the one matter of considering that horses are made of iron and can thrive better on long and rapid marches than on oats, his men give him credit for never making a mistake. The trust and pride of the private soldier of his Division in his infallibility and achievements pass all understanding. Whatever may be the work in hand, every one feels absolutely confident that, though it may not always succeed as fully as expected, it will never be bungled so long as ‘Johnny’ has control of it. And if, in any of the towns, the surrendered


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Boers should ask you whom you serve under, and you reply, “French,” they will gape at you as being something above the common run of ‘rooineks’.

He has acquired an almost demoniac reputation amongst the Boers for being able to be in two places at once. “What is the use?” they say. “We dig trenches, and place cannon, and keep the khakis back for hours; and with our spy-glasses we think we see his cavalry lurking behind—but, presently, round he comes on our line of retreat, and we are obliged to trek quickly, lest we be caught and hemmed in, as was Cronje at Paardeberg.”

In the lines the horses are eating their evening oats, and the men all busy cooking. It is a curiously interesting and picturesque scene.

When you look at a bivouac at night Modern War loses its modernity. Smokeless powder, seven-mile ranges, unseen death—all the adjuncts of our civilised methods of settling disputes are hidden away in the darkness. There are only the little twinkling fires, the tired horses, the hungry men, the smell of cooking, the quiet voices and the laughter and snatches of song just as it might have been a thousand years ago. Whether men kill one another with axes or with magazine rifles, they are still men. They must sleep, and eat, and be cold. The English camp on the night before Agincourt couldn't have been very much different to this in appearance. It makes you feel somehow that, after all, we haven't improved


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very much in the centuries. There are railways, and steamships, and electricity, and adequate drainage in cities, and ‘heaps’ of other ways of making life more healthy and agreeable—but, in the end, when we want to settle a question between individuals or nations we come back to our own nature, and settle it still after the manner of the beasts of the field and the fowl of the air.

There are three regiments, with from three to four squadrons apiece, in the Brigade, and a battery of Horse Artillery. Each regiment is in ‘mass’ formation with regard to its squadrons—that is to say the leading troop of the squadron is on the front line, and the others behind it, in succession, to the rear—so that the squadrons lie side by side, and are of about the same depth. Every horse is allowed sufficient space to ensure him non-interference on the part of his neighbour. Between the parallel squadrons a narrow street is left. Between the regiments the streets are a little wider. Behind each squadron is its transport, and behind that again the transport of the regiment as a whole. In rear of all are the Army Service waggons, and a little way aside of them the ambulance vans neatly dressed in line The battery is usually on the right of the Brigade—with its guns and ammunition-waggons in rear. Seen from a distance, the whole seems to be a little more than a large cluster of men, horses, guns and waggons, jumbled together anyhow—but when you


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come closer you will see that all is duly ordered, that everything has its place and allotted position.

Almost in front of all are the little ‘one man’ green and white tents of the officers, and just beyond them the headquarters of the Brigade, where good ‘Uncle Tom’—most popular of Brigadiers—shows his red lamp o' nights.

The dingy saddles and arms are arrayed in order—each saddle before its horse, and the whole line ‘dressed’ correctly. It is only a ‘one night’ camp, and so there are not many of the tiny blanket-dwellings—built with swords and carbines and bridlereins—such as spring up when the march is checked for a day or two. Men are moving about with jackets unbuttoned and puttees removed, and are a motley, shabby crowd enough.

Dreadful to contemplate, horrible to relate, but necessary to mention if one would seek to give a truthful picture of the minor aspects of a campaign, are the efforts of mankind in African warfare to rid themselves of the loathsome vermin which infest clothing and blankets and person, and every moment of existence. It is a shocking state of affairs, and few escape—even though there are some who will not acknowledge its existence, as far as they themselves are concerned. One consolation men offered themselves—that the plague was of the veldt, and therefore unavoidable.

Insecticide is no good. Neither do cleanly habits


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mitigate the evil. There is but one means of keeping down the population. You must hunt, and you must kill. And so, when you behold half-naked men seated upon their kits, earnestly and laboriously scanning their shirts, and grunting with satisfaction at intervals, you will understand what it means. When a column halts in the afternoon in order to bivouac for the night, one of the first things infested men do is to squat down on the ground, pull off their shirts, and seek what they may find.

One feels almost apologetic for having written of such a subject, but it is just as much a feature of warfare as are battles—more so, even, than battles, for the battles are simply occasional episodes, but the ‘Scots Greys,’ or ‘Roberts’ Horse,’ as they have been almost universally termed, like the poor, are always with you.

The name bestowed upon these awful insects is not complimentary to the Second Dragoons—but it may have been the motto of that gallant regiment—‘Second to None’—which suggested the comparison to the original libeller. The ‘Greys’ of the veldt are certainly ‘second to none’.

Fuel was always a problem. If you could get a post, or half a post, you were indeed fortunate. It meant comparative luxury. You might cook—supposing there was anything to be cooked—and after that you could sit round the tiny blaze and feel that there really was some comfort left in the world after


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all. It was cheerful, even, to look at the warm glow of two little burning sticks. Sometimes you got part of a door, or a window-sash, or a flooring-board. A baby's cradle, the leg of a piano, a railway sleeper—anything that would burn was worth its weight in transport.

The Boers themselves depend for their fire on an evil composition known as ‘mest’. It is essentially dried cattle dung, and you may see it in process of manufacture for the market in the Kaffir locations in any of the towns. They collect the raw material on the veldt, or in the cattle kraals, puddle it up in tubs with water, cut it into cakes, and stack it to dry in the sunlight. It is not the pleasantest thing in the world to cook with, but once alight it gives out a good heat, and in a country where wood is so scarce and valuable that stone posts are cheap for fencing, the possibility of obtaining even such a fuel as ‘mest’ is something to be thankful for.

Biscuit-boxes are excellent kindling fuel, but difficult to obtain, and transitory and uncertain in their effectiveness. Moreover, they are the peculiar perquisites of Quarter-master sergeants and cooks, and unless you are a gifted thief you are not frequently able to get away with them. Railway sleepers are solid and lasting, but, being saturated with tar, burn smokily and with prejudicial effect upon the taste of rations cooked in their flames.

Best of all are the wooden fence-posts. They are


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not ‘split,’ but are the solid round trunks of blue gum saplings, and they burn with the fragrant scent you know so well—so that if you shut your eyes, as you sit round the fire smoking, visions of ‘somewhere else’ come to you dreamily across the months.

The Netherlands Railway—or, to be correct, the Corporation that branded its rolling-stock Z.A.R.S.M. (Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek Spoorweg Maatschappij) thoughtfully fenced its permanent way with blue gum posts. There are none left along the line now. What few the invading army passed by on its way to Pretoria have been carefully culled by the subsequent patrols that rode between the little entrenched stations seeking dynamite cartridges. There were many posts on the farms. That was how you were able to judge whether a farm was fairly prosperous or not. You did not look for fat cattle or good crops. You sought wooden fence-posts. And when you beheld them you knew that the late occupant of the farm had been a member of the Volksraad, or a holder of Government concessions, or a Landrost. No one but a wealthy man can afford to fence with wooden posts in South Africa. And they were truly a Godsend to Tommy Atkins and Tommy Cornstalk. If, towards evening, when there seemed to be a prospect of getting into quarters for the night before very long, a Brigade should happen to encounter a line of wire fencing with wooden posts, such event was hailed with the utmost joy and gratitude. Lines of men


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spread along it on either side of the direction of the march, and, by the time that the last waggon had rattled through the opening made by the wire-cutters, there was no fence remaining for a mile or two to left and right. Should the march not come to an end so soon as expected, men often carried heavy posts on their shoulders or across their wallets, for hours and miles. Any labour was worth undertaking for a fire at night.

A six-pound bully-beef tin is an excellent and providential article of veldt culinary ware. You pick it up empty at daylight in the lines, and fasten it to the end of your carbine-bucket, where, during the day, it plays a picturesque and not unmusical part. At nightfall, after you are fed, you fill it with water and boil the fat and dust out of it on your fire, and you possess an invaluable utensil. You may carry water in it, or you may draw your tea and coffee in it, or you may boil down your scraggy beef, or make a curry, or a rice pudding, or the satisfying and sustaining mealie-pap. At a pinch, you may use its flat side as a writing-desk.

The cavalry mess-tin is a poor thing—a simple frying-pan of shallow make, designed rather to hang easily from the saddle than to possess any intrinsic merit as a cooking-pot—but the infantry tin, that is indeed a friend of man. It does not carry well on horseback. It is built to sit upon the rolled blanket which the foot soldier bears in the ‘small’ of his


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overladen back; but of all useful, convenient, adaptable, blessed contrivances it is surely a prince among pots. About seven inches long and four wide, it is oval on the one side and flat upon the other. It is a little deeper than wide. There is a handle to the body by which you may lift it on or off the fire. Its lid is a frying-pan whose handle folds within, and a tin plate is fitted ingeniously into the top of the pot. You may boil your mealies and fry your steak at the same time, and when you have eaten the former to the last vestige, you may draw your coffee in it. Truly, it comes next to the cavalry cloak as a good and sensible piece of equipment. No kit, as an advertisement would say, is complete without one.

Night comes down over the great camp—sudden, black, cold. The little fires twinkle through the legs of horses. Over in the Artillery lines a great group of overcoats stands out against a brighter blaze. The gunners are burning a Boer waggon and giving a concert. Queer barrack-room ballads—just as Kipling renders them, only more so—are roared out into the night.

Git up, you ord'ly man!
Git up, you ord'ly man!
Carn't you 'ear the ord'ly sargint call-in'?
Git up an' clean th' room,
Or the clink'll be y'r doom—
Y'll be up before old Squidgy in the morn-in'.

Their songs have many verses, and many quaint features, but they are not the kind of songs which


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would be popular at tea-meetings. There is a gracefully graceless ribaldry about the majority of them that keeps them also from ever getting written.

There was a mess of four in that bivouac—and in many other bivouacs of that march to Pretoria. Sometimes it shared two biscuits and a little raw beef, sometimes it fared sumptuously on the best that the land had to give. To-night heaven had sent a Canadian. He had ridden jauntily into the lines, inquiring for his ‘outfit’—which was the Second Canadian M.I. No one knew where the Canadian M.I. might be. The night was black as ink, and seemed to threaten rain.

“Say,” said the ‘Yank,’ “kin I throw down with you boys, then? Guess you are the Australians, ain't that so? Waal, if I carn't find any more Canadians, I reckon th' Australians comes pretty close up. Y' don't mind if I throw down in this hyar lo-cation, do yew now? Guess I kin contribute my share to the festive board.”

We knew not the verb ‘to throw down’—but, as two fowls hung to one side of his queer saddle and a leg of mutton to the other, we intimated that he might, if he chose, do as he desired.

So he ‘threw down’—that is to say, he untied the various knots of buffalo-hide and string which kept the saddle in its place, picketed the remarkably fresh pony in the lines, and disposed of his blanket and coat amongst our kits. And we assisted in the cooking


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of the poultry and the mutton, as well as in the eating thereof, and they were very good, and after they were all gone except the bones and the feathers, we were able to supply him with some real tobacco to chew. You cannot chew Boer tobacco.

So, whilst the thin smoke of our pipes lost itself amongst the stars, and the little flickering flame at the end of the fence-post lit up bearded and dirty, but no longer hungry faces, an hour or two passed pleasantly enough in yarns, and lies, and lazy anecdotes. One spoke of cane growing on the Northern River, and waxed enthusiastic over the great forests, and the red cedar, and the soil. Another became eloquent as to lucerne on the Hunter. Another lied of little fish that came out of artesian bores where he lived. Another, who was an Irishman and a policeman, recounted some few of his adventures and misadventures whilst in charge of a lunatic on the Macleay.

The Canadian chewed and spat royally into the fire until it was in danger of extinguishment, and told us of his doings of the day.

“Now, I'll jes' tell yew boys what one of those something French's Scouts had the darned hide to do, or raither to try to do, during the day. I reckon he had a pretty con-siderable section of real, slap-up cheek, too.

“Y' see, two of the boys, and yours truly, we slipped away from th' ‘outfit’ t' see what we could


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pick up sorter permiscuous like. We moosied along over the darned veldt until we came to a Kaffir kral—a pretty good kind of kral, too—mud cabin an' bamboo fixin's. Must'er b'longed to pretty w'althy col'd gent, I guess. And we sees a lot of ponies browsin' roun' in th' prairie. After a deal of trouble, we corralled the mustangs in one of them stone corrals, an' calc'lated to fix ourselves with re-mounts and a spare hoss or two to lead along to the ‘outfit’. So we sot down to make a pot of tea, before catching the ponies an' gettin' along.

“Bymbye, up comes a leftenint of French's Scouts, with a yaller boy ridin' behind him, a-leadin' his pack-horse. An' he sees our re-mounts. So, without so much as having the po-liteness to ask for one, he sails in an' commences to help himself to the pick of our private stud. We watched him select his fancy—an' he took a deal of care in pickin' it out. One o' th' boys re-marks to him: ‘Say, mister, what are y' calc'latin' to do with that there pony y' got roped up thar?’ He allowed he was goin' t' have it. ‘Oh, no,’ my friend sez, quiet like; ‘oh, no, y'r not—they jes' about b'long to me 'n my friends here.’ ‘My deah fellow,’ sez French's Scout, ‘they do not. They b'long to the Kaffirs, and I'm goin' ter requisition this one. I'm an off'cer,’ he sez; ‘I hold Her Majesty's commission.’ ‘Waal,’ sez Charley, ‘y’ might hold th' angel Gabriel's co-mission, an' then agin', y' mightn't,’ he sez; ‘but I guess y' jes' goin'


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t' leave that darned hoss whar he is. We've taken the trouble to run them in,’ he sez, ‘and we jes' about con-clude that they are our private prop'ty. An' what's more,’ he sez, ‘I guess y'r lookin' f'r trouble,’ he sez, ‘an’ I kin tell yew y've come right har whar you kin git it!’ he sez.

“An' at last we con-vinced him that our title was O.K., an' he left in a dam hurry to see the provo'-marshal about it.

“But this here's what stuck in my neck—his own hoss was good, an' fresh, an' fit for anything, but he wanted to take one of our re-mounts to give to his nigger—yes, gentlemen, to his darned useless nigger! If his own hoss had bin knocked up, we'd bin happy to sell him one, supposin' he'd asked f'r it civil and nice, but he ackshally—true's I'm sittin' right har—he wanted to give one of our hosses to his darned Jim Crow coon! We couldn't 'low that, so we hunted him an' his darned son of a sweep away.”

As you make your bed so you must lie upon it. If you wake up in the night with an impression of lying across a small kopje it is quite your own fault. You should have kicked down the tussocks and removed the loose stones before you spread out the waterproof sheet.

There is a good deal of art required in the making of a comfortable bed if your only material consists of a mackintosh sheet, one brown blanket and an overcoat.


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On these frosty nights you have to get the maximum of warmth out of the minimum of material. You pull the saddle round so that its seat faces the direction of the wind, and stand it up on end so that the sideflaps make a small shelter for your head. Inside the saddle you make your pillow out of haversack, towel, helmet—anything available that may serve your needs best. To undress, you remove your spurs and boots, and unwind the puttees from your legs. If you wrap your feet up in your puttees they will keep them warm, but the best plan is to leave your boots on, and pull a pair of woollen socks over them—provided, of course, that you possess the socks. You lie down upon the waterproof sheet, pull the blanket up to your ears, and spread out the coat sideways over it. Then you tuck blanket and coat round your feet and under your sides, pull the thrice-blessed ‘Balaclava’ over your ears, light your pipe, and thank heaven fervently for the many luxuries it is your privilege to enjoy.

It is a queer life this. No one at home can know it exactly as it is. No one out here can quite describe it. It is rough, it is hard and it is dangerous, but it is intensely interesting and exciting. The glorious healthiness of it is its perfect charm. There are fever, and dysentery, and pneumonia—but, provided that you can keep clear of these, you will almost fatten on it. There is also, of course, considerable danger of what a certain member of the much-quoted


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quoted Canadians termed ‘darned lead-poisoning’—meaning thereby, the chance of going under to a bullet—but that is the element which supplies the excitement, and, as a matter of fact, is far less a real danger than the bad water and insanitary surroundings.

War may be immoral, and deplorable, and barbarous, but from the point of view of the combatant (not the women and children) there are many worse phases of existence. It is a big sport, a gamble with fate—and, as such, while the human composition remains human, it will never cease to exercise a certain fascination and attractiveness to man.

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