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Chapter IV The Kopje

THE Brigade was halted close beside a white farmhouse. There had been slaughter and rapine in the poultry-yard; bundles of hay had been looted from the forage-loft. We left them sitting on the ground beside their horses. The feed-bags with the scanty oats had been hung on the drooping heads, and all, save ourselves and the squadron of which our diminished two troops formed part, were resting, and seemed likely to rest for some hours. While they rested we were to ride out and ‘feel’ that long, blue kopje.

Every one knew what the ‘business’ was from long experience. The kopje looked peaceful and quiet in the warm afternoon sunlight. Unless one had seen it all before, and had previous knowledge of lovely landscapes that spat bullets from apparently nowhere in particular, one would hardly have expected that an hour or two would bring one within touch of sudden death. The first time it had been a riding forth without reason, a light-hearted excursion into

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the debatable lands—an astonished feeling of resentment that so harmless and smiling a prospect should merely be a mask hiding an unknown foe. Frequently afterwards the objective had been a mystery. Troop leaders may have known what they were required to find out, and how they were going to set about it, and where the enemy was supposed to be ‘lying low,’ but the trooper seldom had any definite notion as to what was to be done, or what was expected of him. There may have been Mauser-fire, or there may have been shell-fire to be drawn. He was not consulted in the matter. He was merely sent out as a bait for bullets. Often recurring experience of the kind of thing in question had made it familiar. Familiarity had almost bred contempt. If bullets pass closely by, without hitting you, on nine separate occasions, you feel tolerably certain that you will come off scatheless on the tenth.

So you go out, with no serious apprehension as to whether you will return to camp at night. Sometimes, to be sure, you don't—but the chance is so small as to be barely worth consideration. Usually, you are not even curious as to what the work in hand may be. It is vaguely probable that it will consist of the well-known ‘drawing fire,’ but you don't know for certain, and after a while you don't care overmuch.

To-day, however, there is no doubt. The wide, yellow veldt sweeps away to the horizon—East, West

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and South unbrokenly. It is only to the North that the long kopje mars the even symmetry of the sky-line. You are riding towards it. You are well extended from your neighbour. A few advanced scouts are in front. You know what to expect.

The plains are not quite level. Gentle slopes run down, for a mile or more, into shallow spruits and rain-cut dongas. The waving grass is dry, and has lost its first freshness by reason of the frosts. Up from the further side of each donga the ground rises slowly to another low crest. No ridge is higher than its fellow; no depression deeper than the one before it. The air is clear and bright, but the distant landscape is half-veiled by a gauzy, purple haze, just dense enough to render indistinct horses and men moving about over two thousand yards away. You might see them, but they would not be sharply defined targets.

Here and there on the slopes are the humpy, mud-coloured kraals of the Kaffirs—‘Gunyahs’ Tommy Cornstalk calls them. They are quaint structures, primitive and simple. In shape they are like hollow globes divided into two halves at the equators, and the halves planted, pole skyward, on the ground. Sometimes they are plastered with mud—a kind of ‘wattle and daub’—sometimes thatched with grass. A tiny arched hole in the side, through which it is necessary to crawl in order to enter, is the only opening. There is no provision for light or ventilation.

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Fires, apparently, are made outside. Round the diminutive doorway there is usually a little wicket fence constructed of sticks from the scant bushes of the kopjes, or of mealie-stalks lashed together—the top of the palisading uncut and ragged. In occasional more pretentious establishments the fence surrounds the whole hut. Three-legged cooking pots and gourds are heaped by the doorway inside. Fowls run in and out of the enclosure. The ground all about is trampled hard, and seems to be kept clean and well swept.

Close beside the man-kraals are the cattle-kraals—low-walled, square or oblong yards built of the loose, undressed, unmortared stones that litter the veldt. Wonderfully well-built and ‘plumb’ are these stone-age stock-yards—laborious of construction probably, but, without doubt, lamb-proof and dog-proof. A single entrance at one end, closed by rails, serves to admit the stock.

About the dwellings, as you pass by, are grouped the dusky family—the men-kind ranging from bent and white-headed veterans, who might have beheld the Great Trek or fought the Voortrekkers, to tiny, podgy fellows just able to walk abroad naked and unashamed; and the women from withered hags, toothless and wrinkled, down to bright-eyed little maidens of few summers. In his prime, the Kaffir is a fine man—deep-chested, sturdy-haunched, light-hearted—and the women, broad-hipped, deep-bosomed,

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cavern-mouthed and flat-faced, but not altogether unpleasing in appearance. The fat, barrel-bodied children goggle with astonishment and run as you ride by. No bad country this, where the babies are so fat and the mothers so strong and comely—where the mealie crops are sown, and come up and flourish, in fields that have been but barely scratched by way of cultivation.

Kaffir kraals are not bad places to drop into when your haversack is empty and your wallets innocent of sustenance. That is to say, there is generally something to be had—if a commando has not passed that way in retreat, or if there be no Mounted Infantry ponies hanging to the cornstalk fence, with big wooden, leather-covered stirrups, and overcoats tied carelessly to the back of the black saddle with string or oxhide that hang loose over the horses' flanks. If you see that kind of pony, with that kind of stirrup, and that method of rolling a cloak, you will know that the Canadians are within—and to go a-foraging where the Canadians are doing likewise, or may have been, argues bad judgment and an ill-balanced brain.

War is not a nice business, and an empty stomach has no conscience. Orlando's method of demanding food from the Duke in the Forest of Arden was rude and brusque, and not to be extenuated—but there were points about it. If you have had nothing to eat since last night, and see no prospect of anything

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to-night, few scruples will prevent you from obtaining it in the most expeditious manner possible—if it is to be obtained. You know also that, if you do not take it, some one else will. So you ride up to your kraal. “Got any mealie, Johnny?” to the head of the household.

“Nie mealie, baas.”

“Any eggs?” (If he doesn't understand, you point to the fowls, and make gestures.)

“Nie, baas.”


“Nie melk, baas.”

You draw your carbine from its bucket, insert a cartridge in the breech, and rest it across your legs. The movement is not lost on the head of the household.

“Any mealie now, Johnny?”

“Ja, baas.”

“Any eggs?”

“Ja, baas!”

“Any melk?”

“Ja, baas! Ja! ja! ja!”

And mealies, and milk, and eggs are forthcoming from the kraal, with perhaps a fowl thrown in as a voluntary peace-offering. If you have any money, you give him some. If you have none, you ride away, and feel sorry for the Kaffirs, and moralise inwardly on the iniquity of war and its usages. It is brutal, but imperative.

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“Sanguinary rough,” says Tommy Cornstalk, “to take the poor devils' tucker. But I was hungry.” And that explains it. One must live, even at the expense of others. It is simply the law of self-preservation stripped of the clothing worn by it in civilisation. You do the same thing every day at home, only you don't notice it.

The blue kopje draws nearer. Only a mile or two now. There will be shooting and riding soon. You wonder whether that ‘off’ fore-shoe will bring you to grief. You are trotting most of the time—that wretched English trot which helps the ‘Tommies’ to give their horses sore backs, and which is the only pace these London cab horses seem to know. They were given to you as remounts at Bloemfontein, after the race thither and sundry ridings round Thaba N'chu had used up the last of the good Australians you shipped at Woolloomooloo a few months back. You feel that you want a bell or a whistle, in order to get the best work out of your over-burdened, underfed mount.

By this time you are the fourth part of a ‘left flanking patrol’. The main body of the reconnoitring squadron rides some distance to the rear of a widely extended line of scouts. You are level with the squadron, but half a mile further out to the left than the last of the scouts. It is your business to prevent a possibly lurking enemy from ‘nippin’ in behind,’ or ‘attacking sideways on’—as it has variously

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been put. The squadron is a little cluster of horsemen, extended also, but not too widely to render them an unattractive target for artillery. They will draw the shell-fire, if there be any to be had. The scouts will count the Mausers.

A mealie field has to be ridden through. There are possibilities about mealie fields. The stalks are high enough in parts almost to hide a man on horseback. They may shelter a few hidden sharpshooters, or they may contain a commando. You open out wider as you enter, and ride through the rustling ears and leaves with your loaded rifle ready in your hand.

There is no one there. Just on the further edge is one of those circular, circus-ring threshing grounds, where the women beat out the Kaffir corn—a species of millet with little round seeds tufting together at its top, from which, when ground between stones, they make a coarse bread. To-day there are two fat ‘gins’ and a girl, so busily engaged in bagging the winnowed seed that you burst upon them suddenly from amid the mealie crop—so suddenly that the eldest and stoutest of the three comes near to having a fit, and can only gasp and stare at you in an agonised, helpless way. The girl, shapely and wellmade, comes forward laughing. But she cannot speak English.

“Where Boers?” you inquire.

“Boos!” she says, catching at the word; “Boos?”

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“Ja, Boos! where you think it that pheller him go?” you reply, dropping unconsciously into Australese. But she can only shake her head and smilingly bare a gleaming set of perfect teeth. After much gesture, you are not quite certain whether she means to imply that the veldt ahead is swarming with Boers, or that they have all trekked to an indefinite distance, hurriedly and wholesale.

Kaffir information is seldom to be depended upon when you are scouting. Few people other than the Kaffir will probably assent so readily to any interrogative address, if it be that he thinks that a reply in the affirmative will be acceptable to the questioner. Similarly, if he suppose that ‘no’ will gratify, he will say no. He is quite impartial. He will give you any information you please. Whether it be correct matters not to him, so long as it satisfies you.

“There are horses in that kraal, aren't there, Johnny?”

“Ja, baas.”

“You've never seen a horse in your life, have you, Johnny?”

“No, baas.”

When in doubt he says “Ja”.

“Which would you sooner do or play cricket, Johnny?”

“Ja, baas.”

One refers, of course, to the Kaffir whose only alien tongue is Dutch. He is a guileless liar, and generally

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doesn't know when he is lying and when he is speaking the truth. At any rate, it is the safest course, when your life may depend upon it, never to accept information from a Kaffir as being wholly reliable. You may usually only arrive at an approximation to the truth by carefully comparing the lies, and putting two and two together from the whole mass of fiction.

Half a mile beyond the mealie field and about halfway up the opposite gentle slope, was a collection of mud huts. The main body had halted temporarily, so it seemed to the ‘left flanking patrol’ an excellent opportunity for supplementing a deplenished larder. A man remained on his horse a hundred and fifty yards out beyond the kraal, and the rest cautiously approached the enclosure. It might have been a trap —but wasn't.

At the door was the oldest woman in the world—the oldest woman who had ever lived in the world. Shrivelled to what might have been half her size in youth; bent, until her head was almost lower than her hips; almost without sight or hearing; long skinny breasts depending loosely and hideously from her shrunken chest; spindle-shanked, nearly naked, unintelligent—she was not unlike Gagool of King Solomon's Mines. Crouched in the sun when we rode up, she seemed hardly to notice us, and remained squatting in the same place until we went away. It seemed impossible that there could have been an older man or woman in existence.

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“One hundred and fifty,” said the corporal, “if she's a day!”—and indeed she looked it. A white-headed ‘Uncle Ned,’ who was probably her grandson, strolled about near her. Little niggers swarmed all round.

This family seemed particularly impressed by our appearance—which was probably picturesque, if not clean. Almost ere we could requisition anything, a bowl of eggs was brought, and a gourd full of sweet goat's milk, and, by signs and jabbering, they tendered the fullest hospitality they had. No need this time for ‘moral suasion,’ in the form of rifle loading!

It is perhaps uncharitable to say so, but in the light of subsequent events their hospitality can hardly seem to have been anything but a lure—an encouragement to ride on carelessly, and to assume that there were no Boers in the neighbourhood by reason of the Kaffirs' friendliness. Bullets came from that kraal later in the day, as the reconnoitring party retired. But the eggs were good, and we sucked them.

The watcher without hailed us:—

“Come on, you fellows. The push's going on. Buck up! Wot yer got?”

So we went on up the rise. Half a mile and the crest was reached. Keeping step with the main body, we again halted, and looked out over the wide rolling veldt. The haze was deeper and more blue now, and the scouts were nearing the long kopje.

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From the crest where we were the ground sloped away in a series of undulations down to a level plain. From the foot of the slope—which was scarcely noticeable, and only so because the curtain of haze seemed to begin there—the plain reached flat and far and unbroken, past the kopje we were interested in, to a distant range of indigo hills. And in the plain manœuvred two squadrons of cavalry, moving parallel to and in the same direction as ourselves.

Whom could they be? We sat and watched them from our saddles, whilst our own squadron, three-quarters of a mile to the right, remained stationary.

Now there should have been no British troops so close up on our left. The First Cavalry Brigade we had come from. To the right of it was the Fourth. Hutton's Mounted Infantry was behind. It was just possible, though very improbable, that a couple of companies of Hutton's men had come up on our left, in order to reconnoitre the country further to the west. Improbable, because they could hardly have reached there in the time. However, as it is usual to send out reconnoitring parties without giving each individual an intelligent insight into the ‘lay of the land,’ and the whereabouts of other divisions, it still remained possible. That they were using our troop formation, and riding in fairly regular order—with advanced scouts out in front—lent colour to the supposition that they were British and not Boer. That they were in a position whither one was almost

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certain no British troops could have come without our having discovered them earlier in the afternoon seemed to point to the fact that they were Boer and not British.

We sat undecided. Up ahead, the scouts were halted—tiny specks of men and horses in the haze—apparently right under the long kopje, really half a mile from it. How were we to make sure of the newcomers on our left? The strange squadrons had halted likewise by this time. Two or three leaders seemed to be riding amongst the ranks. We knew not what to make of them. Oh, for the field-glasses which we should have carried rather than the useless swords. Presently some twenty detached themselves from the main body and came riding towards us. More mysterious still! Nearer and nearer they came. A slight depression hid them from us.

Far away, and faintly from the long kopje, came the quick double report of a Mauser—ping-pong. Then again rapidly, ping-pong, ping-pong, ping-ping, pong-pong—p-r-r-r-r-p—the scouts had drawn their fire. Crack-crack, crack-crack-cr-r-r-r-r-r-ack—cr-r-r-r-r-r-ack—the cordite answered, which was contrary to wont. The scouts were retiring slowly, covering their retreat with rifle-fire. Sometimes it died away to a single ping-pong or crack; then again it ripped and rolled across the veldt in a stronger medley of sound. We sat watching our uncertain neighbours on the left. Their main body had turned

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as the scouts turned, and were edging in towards our rear.

Out of the depression where the twenty had disappeared, eight hundred yards away, came riding a single big man on a white pony. No sign was there of the twenty who had started with him.

Said the corporal: “That settles it. They're British, and they're sending across to find out who the devil we are. Come on! We'll go and meet him!” So we rode slowly over.

The distance from the hollow became less than six hundred.

“Hadn't I better get down and cover the bloke?” some one queried of the corporal. “He might be a Bore after all. Best not give him any show.”

“Well, I don't know,” said the corporal, “I——”

Phutt-bang! phutt-bang! (the Mauser only sounds double in the distance) phut-phut-phut-bang-bang-bang!—bullets came singing and spitting past our ears and made little red spirits of dust beyond our horses on the ground. Phut-phut-phut-t-t-t-t-bang-bang-bang-b-r-r-r-r-ump!

“Oh, Lord!” said the corporal, “time we left. What a sell! Come on! Files about. They're trying to cut us off!”

Back we went at a hand-gallop, the little spirts of dust and the phut-phut-phut of the singing nickel growing less frequent and close as the distance lessened between ourselves and the main body. The

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scouts were nearly back to it also now, riding slowly, apparently out of range of the long, blue, innocent-looking kopje. No one had been hit. A bullet intended for the ‘left flanking patrol’ had sailed merrily overhead, and, almost spent, dropped into the belly of a horse with the main body. The horse lived and worked for a week.

That is the inexplicable thing about ‘drawing fire’—how so little damage is done. All the advantages would seem to lie with the hidden rifleman whose fire is to be ‘drawn’. The horseman is an enlarging target as he approaches. The man in the rocks may choose the position for shooting which he fancies best, may select his favourite range, may pick his man—but he seldom hits him.

Once, a troop consisting of four-and-twenty men and two officers went forth to investigate a mine superstructure and a ‘tailing-heap,’ close by Roodepoort on the Rand. There were from one hundred to one hundred and fifty Boers in a deep ditch—a ‘surface drive’ it would be in Australia—which lay just before the buildings. Thirty feet in front of the ditch stretched a barbed-wire fence, and the ditch was not visible until the fence was reached. The troop came to the fence, and drew a paralysing volley. They wheeled and raced. For several hundred yards, before the slope of the ground hid them from sight, they were under the rapid Mauser magazine-fire. There were bullets through helmets, haversacks,

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clothing, saddlery and two horses—but that was all!

Yet, if you think of it, the first shot is the only one that may be effective. And the marksman generally makes too sure—just as you are liable to miss a kangaroo at twenty feet if you don't take the usual pains over aligning the sights. And when once the horseman has turned, and is increasing the range with every second, he is the poorest target possible. You may pump lead at him, but you don't hit him. You will probably forget to adjust your back-sight as he alters the range from five to seven hundred yards.

Another explanation of the often very bad shooting of the Boer is that the Mauser—a comparatively new weapon to him—is marked in metres, whereas he has learned to shoot in yards with the old Martini or the American-pattern rifles. But that is as may be.

The squadron was trotting back by this time to where it had parted from the Brigade—scouts as a rear-guard. Away back, little dots were sliding out of the long kopje and slithering over the veldt in pursuit. A properly carried out reconnaissance entails something of the distasteful upon the men who carry it out. It is unpleasant, and a trifle humiliating, to be chased—more natural to stand and fight. But it is the proper game — to run when you have drawn the enemy's fire. You are not there to fight

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him. You are to find him out, and go back for your big brother to wallop him.

The ‘left flanking patrol’ of the advance had become the ‘right flanking patrol’ of the retirement, but the retirement was slightly oblique, and half a mile further east than the line of advance.

Opposite the kraal where Gagool lived more bullets came spitting by. From near the mealie field another shower. Beyond the mealie field, the troop leader sent the writer with one man on a pleasant mission. We were to ride out to the right, six hundred yards, and see whether there was any donga or spruit where the enemy might be concealed in order to rake the main body as it passed by. “Goodbye,” said the troop humorously, “see you on the Day of Judgment!” It seemed likely.

Out six hundred yards there were no bullets. Out fifty more and the air above our heads hummed with them. But they came from a cluster of galvanised iron huts nearly a thousand yards away.

The Division was riding up to meet us—a long line of horses and khaki. Bang! went a Horse Artillery gun, and the shell ‘whooshled’ over our heads to check the advancing Boers. Pom-pom-pom! and the little one-pounders of the Vickers-Maxim scurried away on the same mission. A few hundred New Zealanders from Hutton's Brigade rode out in open order and passed through us.

The Division swung round to the right. Bang!

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bang!—a couple more guns. A premature shell-burst spattered the veldt with shrapnel just in front of the Maorilanders. We joined the regiment.

Beyond doubt it had been proved that the long kopje contained Boers—‘Quod erat demonstrandum’!

The Division moved along down a shallow depression towards a great dam. We were to bivouac. The fight, if there was one, would come off next day. From ahead came the rip-rip-rip! of the New Zealanders' rifles. The Mauser bullets were splashing up the dust as they fell spent three hundred yards from us. We came to our camping-ground. The fire died away with the dusk.

There had been an incident which we learnt of only that evening. As the scouts were advancing, the horse of a shoeing-smith of the ‘Greys’ had stumbled in an ant-bear hole. The rider's leg was broken, and his mate stayed with him. When we retired they had been far off our line of retreat, and had been forgotten. The friend of the injured man, under a hail of bullets from the on-coming Boers, had galloped back with the led horse. Up came the Boer Commandant to where the helpless smith lay.

“What? badly hurt, old man? Sorry; hard luck! Have a drink of water. Wish I had whisky to offer you!”—and he passed on, being in a hurry to get in another shot at the ‘verdomde rooineks’.