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Chapter XV The End

“AN unhappy land”—no phrase or words could possibly sum up the situation of South Africa to-day better than these, none could have a deeper or sadder meaning to any one who has seen recently the bitter distraction of all the country there. It is a land drenched with the best blood of its people, and with the best of ours; a land ravaged, and wasted, and made empty; a land afflicted with the curse of the soldier from end to end. It is as a grievously sick man, who is incapable of earning his own living, and has to be supported by some one else. There is nothing there. Its industries are man killing and maiming; its exports are human lives.

Take the train at Kroonstad and journey to the Vaal. It is not very far, but you will not travel so quickly that you may not look out and see for yourself how the land lies. You will pass out of Kroonstad with a great canvas hospital upon your left. Blue-clad, miserable men will listlessly take stock of your train as it passes by. Up above the white tents,


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on a little slope of open veldt, you will see rows of mounds. Perhaps the grass has grown over some of them by now. They were bare and new when the writer came by six months ago. You will run past America and Jordaan Sidings—empty voids, where nothing but a station signboard notifies the fact that they have been stopping-places for trains in some other age. You will pass over culverts and little bridges that have been blown up with dynamite, and rapidly repaired out of old sleepers and nondescript material of all kinds by that wonderfully efficient Railway Pioneer Regiment. At frequent intervals there will be twisted rails and partially burned sleepers beside the tracks—no, on second thoughts, there will be no sleepers, because the patrols will have garnered them up for fuel. Sometimes you will come across wrecked and burned railway trucks and other rolling-stock.

At little stations, such as Honing Spruit, you will find all manner of curly and angular entrenchments and gun emplacements, and redoubts, and far out sangars for the outposts, and a bewildering entanglement of encircling barbed wire. And there will be harassed officers, and empty tins of bully-beef, and discontented ‘Tommies,’ and a demand for news.

At Roodeval you will see the row of seven graves beside the line—each one ornamented with its wooden cross, and caps and sides of nine-inch shells, and little surrounding borders of stones. And,


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out across the veldt, you will see the places where Christian De Wet planted his guns, and shelled the Fourth Derbyshire beyond all endurance. By this time the half-burned letters from the captured mail-bags will hardly be so much in evidence as they were in August of last year, and the acres of fire-destroyed khaki clothing will not be at all noticeable.

At the Kopjes Siding you may possibly come across an armoured train, with its ‘pom-pom’ on the leading truck, and its steel-lined trucks for men, and boiler-protected engine, and air of readiness for sudden call. Its crew will be playing football in the veldt. But they won't be very far away from their rifles and bandoliers of cartridges. It is inexpedient to be overdistant from your rifle in this part of the world.

But one common feature of the landscapes which you pass through will probably strike you much more forcibly than any other. You will wonder what may have become of the population, the dwellers in the veldt, the obviously inevitable inhabitants whom such a good country should support. You will perceive that the veldt is dotted at intervals with white houses, which are sometimes shaded by the blue-green gum leaves you know so well. You will be at a loss to understand why no one lives in them, why there are no flocks of sheep about the downs, or herds of cattle drinking at the dams. It will strike you that the only stock in this country are Mounted Infantry ponies.

Sometimes, however, as you pass a house that is


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closer to the railway-line than usual, you will perceive the reason of this dearth of population. The windows are empty and gaping. The roof is gone. Broken pieces of furniture and household effects litter the ground in front and rear. There is nothing left. To live in such a place would not be at all comfortable. One or two will have shell-holes in the walls. If you get out of your carriage and look very closely you will be able to find little chipped holes in the white-washed mud plaster of the walls, where the bullets have struck.

And that is the way it is everywhere. These places along the line have been burned and destroyed in accordance with the warning Lord Roberts gave the inhabitants as to raids upon his communications. It is quite fair and legitimate, generally speaking. We must establish British rule—gently, if possible, but it must be established. Away from the line, too—if you have not seen enough to prove to you that this is ‘an unhappy land’—you will find the burned and empty houses, the impoverished farms. It cannot be helped. We have tried lenient measures—a leniency which only returned to us in derision. These people are obstinate. We mean to have our way. They must be made to feel that the yoke will weigh heavily until our way is theirs also.

But it is cruel—bitterly, heartrendingly cruel!

It is not only in the gutted dwellings that you will see the cruelty and horror of it all. Go back from


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the Vaal to Bloemfontein, and walk to the cemetery below the old fort and beside the barracks of the late Free State Artillery. You will find some graves of British soldiers which have been occupied since the early fifties, but you will find them vastly outnumbered by the graves of those who found a resting-place there in 1900.

Of coming from a visit to some sick comrades in the Artillery Barracks, which were then occupied by the Australian Hospital, the writer has one very vivid recollection. Walking beside the graveyard wall, we had paused to watch the burial of some officer, which was a little more noticeable than the generality of funerals for the reason that his body was enshrouded in a Union Jack instead of a brown blanket. We mounted our horses, and rode round the corner of the stone enclosure. At the gate were lying on the grass six stiff shapes, sewn tightly up in their blankets—probably the blankets they had died in. The fatigue parties within were so busy that, for a few minutes, they had not had time to come out and carry the dead men in, and the cart, probably being required to go to another hospital for a similar load, had had to deposit them outside. It was a grim reminder of the brisk business Death was doing amongst the enteric wards.

In course of time the pretty burial-ground was filled to overflowing. There were long trenches in which the dead were laid in layers. A separate grave


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was a luxury to which none but an officer might aspire. And before very long the trenches were being dug in the veldt without the town.

Ride up the Modder and track the march of the army by the graves. Note the little mounds along the advance to Pretoria. Chance on quiet beautiful places like Nitral's Nek, and find them sown with dead men. Everywhere there are dead men. It is as if the whole country were soaked in blood, and planted with little wooden crosses. Truly, it is ‘an unhappy land’.

Now, if you consider all these matters of graves, and burned farmhouses, and how very greatly women influence the lives of men in their capacity of motherhood, you will see quite plainly what an exceptionally curious state of mind South Africa must be in at present, and how difficult it is for any one to predict what the finality of it all may ultimately be.

Have you ever seen a somewhat spoiled and wilful child, strongly desirous of doing or obtaining something which is not good for him (there are so many things), finally restrained from the attainment of his end by sheer physical fear? The moment authority relaxes, the instant the back of the power that overawes him is turned, you may feel quite certain that he will attempt the fulfilment of his wish. In the meantime, while he is watched and guarded, and because he dare not do as he would, he has an attitude of sulky acquiescence—he is sullen. There you have


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a simile that may stand for the mental state of the people of the two late Republics, and for their kinsmen of the Cape Colony as well. And there, too, you have the great difficulty of future government in South Africa.

We have taken the country again. We are about to rule it again, and as we rule it so will it prosper. One does not use the word ‘prosper’ to signify that there will be a larger output of gold from the Rand, or that the De Beers Company will get bigger dividends out of Kimberley, but that the country may become a country of good citizenship, of healthy public spirit, of fellowship of the two almost kindred races which will have to live together in it. And, to this end, we must be firm yet kind, strong but gentle, just if stern—but, above all, consistent in our dealings with these people from whom we have taken their nationhood in open fight.

We have the mistakes that brought about the Great Trek, and the humiliations of '81 and '99, to guide us towards better things—to show us, at the least, ‘the way not to do it’. And if you know that, the rest is not so very difficult of attainment—only, you must first of all know that. Before everything, one thinks, the watchword should be ‘consistency’.

And what a hope there is for a new, a ‘reconstructed’ South Africa! Blood has been spilt as water, treasure scattered lavishly as lucerne seed, brain energy dissipated as a spendthrift's money.


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Are we not to have a return? To those of us who have seen the misery of the country as it is to-day—the empty void the war has made of it—it seems impossible that there can be any blacker depth to reach. The tide has sunk to its lowest ebb. Of the very nature of things it must soon begin to rise again. In the earlier chapters of this book, the writer has hazarded it as his insignificant opinion that the country is a good one—he is even doubtful whether, if the matter were to be fully considered by people more competent of judging its merits than he is, it might not almost be ranked, for many purposes, as a better one than Australia. It is, as has been said before, even as a field that has been uncultivated. It has its disadvantages and drawbacks, but one is very doubtful, indeed, whether it has so many or such appalling ones as we have encountered and overcome here, or as confront us even now. It has a soil that is, best for best, as good, and it has a rainfall that is better. So, let our châteaux d'Afrique be pleasant ones if we may do so. After having seen the poor rent and riven land wallowing in such depths of misery as it has lain in, it is at least a cheerfully optimistic feeling to possess about it ‘that there is a good time coming’ for the Cape, the Orange River Colony and the Transvaal. They will surely need it to compensate for the bad one they have had. Let us hope, therefore, that out of much evil there will come good for South Africa, that, in the future, one


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may think of her less sadly than in the present—that in the end she may be ‘a happy land’.

To us of Australia this has been the first experience of war. Far away from the complications of European politics, we have been permitted, for the century or so of our existence, to develop our country upon peaceful lines, and beyond, ‘for the look of the thing,’ mounting obsolete artillery at a few points along our shores, where no one is ever likely to attempt to invade us, we have not thought it worth our while to give overmuch attention, in a serious way at any rate, to the possible contingency of having to fight for our country, in just as desperate and bloody a fashion as the Boers have had to fight for theirs.

But we are nearer to the centre of the whirlwind now than we were in '54—just a little nearer than we were in '85. And though, knowing now what W-A-R spells, one has the devout and fervent hope that we may never more fully realise the significance of the word in our own good land, it is absolutely necessary, for the sake of our existence as the Nation which we became a few months ago, that we should be at all times fully competent to maintain our position in the wider arena within which peoples and races shape their destinies in the struggle for existence.

If the reader shall have done the writer the honour of wading through these pages of chaotic scribbling


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so far as this one, the latter is not going to take any mean advantage of him by seeking to inflict his views as to the superiority of Mounted Infantry to Cavalry, the moral effect of quick-firing guns and the mobility of artillery, or the faults of present systems of military organisation and equipment upon him. Many more competent, and many quite as incompetent people have already laid the law down as to all manner of military matters. It is easy to criticise, as has been before remarked with regard to the Hospitals, but very hard to suggest reasonably.

But, if he may be permitted here, in the last pages of his book, to point out one obvious lesson that may be drawn for Australia from the history of the English struggle with the Boers, he would very much like to set it forth. Without overmuch wearisome preamble it may be suggested by the one word—Ammunition.

If we have cartridges we have men who can use them effectively; but if we have none, then we are ‘a gift’ to the first hostile Power who may seek to take us.

So, this is the lone suggestion which the writer ventures to make, knowing that he is too ignorant and impracticable to fully elaborate the scheme. That we build ourselves a small-arm ammunition factory somewhere by the Canoblas, and make some cartridges, and keep on making them, until we have so many millions that we may afford to bury them in


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handy places about the country, after the manner of Christian De Wet and other gifted Generals who know what they are about, and whose heads are ‘screwed on the right way’. And then, when the Great War comes suddenly (as it will come when it does come), we shall feel safe, and happy, and content to rely upon ourselves, even though all those slim, untried ships in Farm Cove strew the beaches from Byron Bay to Gabo.

Of course, we need rifles also—plenty of them—and would be all the better off did we make them, too—but we should have, first and above all, enough cartridges to make our supply inexhaustible, and the means of keeping it so when we shall have been cut off from English importations. Cannon, also, and shells, we might make—but that is too vast a dream, perhaps; and, after all, if we have cartridges and rifles, and men who know how to shoot, we may laugh at all the ‘shrapnel’ and ‘common-shell’ that were ever made for Krupp or Creusot guns. While we can arm such men as those who defied De la Rey at Eland's River we need have little fear for the safety of our country, but if we cannot arm them, and keep them supplied with ammunition for their arms, we might as well attach ourselves to whatever Power we may consider likely to be ‘top dog’ in the event of the overthrow of England. We have been very ready to assist her. It might be as well to make sure that we can help ourselves. We don't


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want uniform factories, or gold lace contractors, but we cannot do without cartridges.

And now we come to the end. The suns rise and set over the grey fields and the blue kopjes out there across the Indian Ocean, and the glorious days of the ‘high veldt’ are as divinely blue and clear as ever they were for us. The same dirty, yellow-coated men loaf about the streets of the quiet stads and dorps; the same dingy guns still point menacingly half skyward; the same steady rifles still rest over ant heaps and rocks; the same long trains puff slowly over the Karoo towards De Aar and Naauwpoort. But the end of it is in sight. The guns and the rifles will point, and the provision trains crawl about the country for a while longer. In a year or more the rifles will be carried at the ‘shoulder’ instead of at the ‘ready’—in God's own time they will be laid down, and there will come the five-furrowed plough amongst the graves, and the noise of the stamper battery will supersede the noise of the field-battery. For us who have come back, the end is here. Black coat or shirt-sleeves instead of khaki—stock-whip and shear-blade instead of rifle. Cattle or sheep to herd instead of worn-out horses—prospecting drives to dig instead of trenches. Kangaroos to hunt instead of men.

Some of us have ‘gone drovin',’ some of us have ‘humped bluey’. Most of us have ‘roughed it’ somewhere in Australia at some time—but none of us as we did in Africa.




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And yet there was something about it all that calls you back again—some devilish fascination in the life of war-time that will never leave you without a hankering for more of it. “There is no hunting like the hunting of man!”

The end for us is the drafting-yard, and the farm in the river bend, and the shearing floor, and the stripped saddle of peaceful avocation, and the office. The end for Africa is yet to shape itself. But the days of war, in spite of what he might have thought at the time—in spite of whatever may become of him in the after years—will always return with something of indefinable pleasure in their remembrance to ‘Tommy Cornstalk’.

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