My Early Life | Chapter 25 of 38

Author: Winston S. Churchill | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 3321 Views | Add a Review

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IT was dark when we anchored in Table Bay; but innumerable lights twinkled from the shore, and a stir of launches soon beset our vessel. High functionaries and naval and military officers arrived, bearing their reports. The Headquarters Staff sat up all night to read them. I got hold of a bundle of newspapers and studied these with equal attention.10

The Boers had invaded Natal, had attacked our advanced forces at Dundee, and though defeated in the action of Talana Hill, had killed General Penn Symons and very nearly rounded up the three or four thousand troops he had commanded as they made their hurried and hazardous retreat to Ladysmith. At Ladysmith Sir George White at the head of twelve or thirteen thousand men, with forty or fifty guns and a brigade of cavalry, attempted to bar their further advance. The intention of the British Government, though this I did not know at the time, was that he should retire southwards across the Tugela, delaying the Boer advance until he could be joined by the large reinforcements now hastening across the oceans from England and India. Above all, he was not to let himself be cut off and surrounded. The British war plan contemplated the temporary sacrifice of Northern Natal, the projecting triangle of which was obviously not defensible, and the advance of the main army under Buller from the Cape Colony through the Orange Free State to Pretoria. All this was soon deranged.

I remember one night in after years that I said to Mr Balfour at dinner how badly Sir George White had been treated. A look of implacable sternness suddenly replaced his easy, smiling, affable manner. A different man looked out upon me. ‘We owe to him,’ he said, ‘the Ladysmith entanglement.’

On the very day of our arrival (October 31) grave events had taken place around Ladysmith. General White, who had gained a local success at Elandslaagte, attempted an ambitious offensive movement against the elusive, advancing, enveloping Boer commandos. A disaster had occurred. Nearly twelve hundred British infantry had been forced to surrender at Nicholson’s Nek, and the rest of the widely dispersed forces were thrown back upon Ladysmith. This they hastily converted into an entrenched camp of wide extent, and being speedily invested on all sides by the Boers, and their railway cut, settled down in a prolonged siege to await relief. The Boers, having encircled them on all sides, had left two-thirds of their forces to block them in, and were presumably about to press on with the rest across the Tugela River into Southern Natal. Meanwhile in the west other Boer forces had similarly encircled Mafeking and Kimberley, and sat down stolidly to the process of starving them out. Finally, the Dutch areas of the Cape Colony itself were quivering upon the verge of rebellion. Throughout the vast subcontinent every man’s hand was against his brother, and the British Government could, for the moment, be sure of nothing beyond the gunshot of the Navy.

Although I knew neither our plan nor the enemy’s situation and all the news of the day’s disaster in Natal was still suppressed, it was clear as soon as we had landed that the first heavy fighting would come in Natal. Buller’s Army Corps would take a month or six weeks to assemble in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. There would be time to watch the Natal operations and come back to the Cape Colony for the main advance. So I thought, and so, a few days later, to his subsequent sorrow, thought Sir Redvers Buller. All traffic through the Free State was of course interrupted, and to reach Natal involved a railway journey of 700 miles by De Aar Junction and Stormberg to Port Elizabeth, and thence by a small mailboat or tug to Durban – four days in all. The railroad from De Aar to Stormberg ran parallel to the hostile frontier. It was quite undefended and might be cut at any moment. However, the authorities thought there was a good chance of getting through, so in company with the correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, a charming young man, Mr J. B. Atkins, later the Editor of the Spectator, I started forthwith. Our train was in fact the last that got round, and when we reached Stormberg the station staff were already packing up.

We sailed from East London upon a steamer of about 150 tons, in the teeth of a horrible Antarctic gale. Indeed I thought the little ship would be overwhelmed amid the enormous waves or else be cast away upon the rocks which showed their black teeth endlessly a bare mile away upon our port beam. But all these misgivings were quickly dispelled by the most appalling paroxysms of seasickness which it has ever been my lot to survive. I really do not think I could have lifted a finger to save my life. There was a stuffy cabin, or caboose, below decks in the stern of the vessel, in which six or seven members of the crew lived, slept and ate their meals. In a bunk of this I lay in an extreme of physical misery while our tiny ship bounded and reeled, and kicked and pitched, and fell and turned almost over and righted itself again, or, for all I know, turned right round, hour after hour through an endless afternoon, a still longer evening and an eternal night. I remembered that Titus Oates lived in good health for many years after his prodigious floggings, and upon this reflection, combined with a firm trust that Providence would do whatever was best, were founded such hopes as I could still retain.

There is an end to everything, and happily nothing fades so quickly as the memory of physical pain. Still my voyage to Durban is a recollection which, in the jingle of the ‘Bab Ballads’,

We landed at Durban and travelled a night’s journey to Pietermaritzburg. The hospital was already full of wounded. Here I found Reggie Barnes shot through the thigh. He had been hit at close range in our brilliant little victory at Elandslaagte station in which my friend Ian Hamilton, now a General, had commanded. He told me all about the fighting and how skilful the Boers were with horse and rifle. He also showed me his leg. No bone was broken, but it was absolutely coal black from hip to toe. The surgeon reassured me afterwards that it was only bruising, and not mortification as I feared. That night I travelled on to Estcourt, a tiny tin township of a few hundred inhabitants, beyond which the trains no longer ran.

It had been my intention to get into Ladysmith, where I knew Ian Hamilton would look after me and give me a good show. I was too late, the door was shut. The Boers had occupied Colenso Station on the Tugela River and held the iron railway bridge. General French and his staff, which included both Haig and Herbert Lawrence,11 had just slipped through under artillery fire in the last train out of Ladysmith on his way to the Cape Colony, where the main cavalry forces were to be assembled. There was nothing to do but to wait at Estcourt with such handfuls of troops as were being hurriedly collected to protect the southern part of Natal from the impending Boer invasion. A single battalion of Dublin Fusiliers, two or three guns and a few squadrons of Natal Carabineers, two companies of Durban Light Infantry and an armoured train, were the only forces which remained for the defence of the Colony. All the rest of the Natal Army was blockaded in Ladysmith. Reinforcements were hurrying to the spot from all parts of the British Empire; but during the week I was at Estcourt our weakness was such that we expected to be ourselves surrounded almost every day, and could do little but fortify our post and wear a confident air.

At Estcourt I found old friends. Leo Amery, the monitor I had unluckily pushed into the bathing pool at Harrow ten years before, afterwards long my colleague in Parliament and Government, was now one of the war-correspondents of the Times. We were able for the first time to meet on terms of equality and fraternity, and together with my friend of the Manchester Guardian we took up our abode in an empty bell tent that stood in the shunting triangle of the railway station. That evening, walking in the single street of the town, whom should I meet but Captain Haldane, who had been so helpful in procuring me my appointment to Sir William Lockhart’s staff during the Tirah Expedition. Haldane had been wounded at Elandslaagte, and had hoped to rejoin his battalion of Gordon Highlanders in Ladysmith, and being like me held up by the enemy, had been given the temporary command of a company of the Dublin Fusiliers. The days passed slowly and anxiously. The position of our small force was most precarious. At any moment ten or twelve thousand mounted Boers might sweep forward to attack us or cut off our retreat. Yet it was necessary to hold Estcourt as long and in as firm a posture as possible. Cavalry reconnaissances were pushed out every morning for ten or fifteen miles towards the enemy to give us timely notice of their expected advance; and in an unlucky moment it occurred to the general in command on the spot to send his armoured train along the sixteen miles of intact railway line to supplement the efforts of the cavalry.

Nothing looks more formidable and impressive than an armoured train; but nothing is in fact more vulnerable and helpless. It was only necessary to blow up a bridge or culvert to leave the monster stranded, far from home and help, at the mercy of the enemy. This situation did not seem to have occurred to our commander. He decided to put a company of the Dublin Fusiliers and a company of the Durban Light Infantry into an armoured train of six trucks, and add a small six-pounder naval gun with some sailors landed from HMS Terrible, together with a breakdown gang, and to send this considerable portion of his force out to reconnoitre towards Colenso. Captain Haldane was the officer he selected for the duty of commanding this operation. Haldane told me on the night of November 14 of the task which had been set him for the next day and on which he was to start at dawn. He did not conceal his misgivings on the imprudence of the enterprise, but he was of course, like everyone else at the beginning of a war, very keen upon adventure and a brush with the enemy. ‘Would I come with him?’ He would like it if I did! Out of comradeship, and because I thought it was my duty to gather as much information as I could for the Morning Post, also because I was eager for trouble, I accepted the invitation without demur.

The military events which followed are well known and have often been discussed. The armoured train proceeded about fourteen miles towards the enemy and got as far as Chieveley station without a sign of opposition or indeed of life or movement on the broad undulations of the Natal landscape. We stopped for a few moments at Chieveley to report our arrival at this point by telegraph to the General. No sooner had we done this than we saw, on a hill between us and home which overlooked the line at about 600 yards distance, a number of small figures moving about and hurrying forward. Certainly they were Boers. Certainly they were behind us. What would they be doing with the railway line? There was not an instant to lose. We started immediately on our return journey. As we approached the hill, I was standing on a box with my head and shoulders above the steel plating of the rear armoured truck. I saw a cluster of Boers on the crest. Suddenly three wheeled things appeared among them, and instantly bright flashes of light opened and shut ten or twelve times. A huge white ball of smoke sprang into being and tore out into a cone, only as it seemed a few feet above my head. It was shrapnel—the first I had ever seen in war, and very nearly the last! The steel sides of the truck tanged with a patter of bullets. There was a crash from the front of the train, and a series of sharp explosions. The railway line curved round the base of the hill on a steep down gradient, and under the stimulus of the enemy’s fire, as well as of the slope, our pace increased enormously. The Boer artillery (two guns and a pom-pom) had only time for one discharge before we were round the corner out of their sight. It had flashed across my mind that there must be some trap farther on. I was just turning to Haldane to suggest that someone should scramble along the train and make the engine-driver reduce speed, when suddenly there was a tremendous shock, and he and I and all the soldiers in the truck were pitched head over heels on to its floor. The armoured train travelling at not less than forty miles an hour had been thrown off the metals by some obstruction, or by some injury to the line.

In our truck no one was seriously hurt, and it took but a few seconds for me to scramble to my feet and look over the top of the armour. The train lay in a valley about 1,200 yards on the homeward side of the enemy’s hill. On the top of this hill were scores of figures running forward and throwing themselves down in the grass, from which there came almost immediately an accurate and heavy rifle fire. The bullets whistled overhead and rang and splattered on the steel plates like a hailstorm. I got down from my perch, and Haldane and I debated what to do. It was agreed that he with the little naval gun and his Dublin Fusiliers in the rear truck should endeavour to keep down the enemy’s firing, and that I should go and see what had happened to the train, what was the damage to the line, and whether there was any chance of repairing it or clearing the wreckage out of the way.

I nipped out of the truck accordingly and ran along the line to the head of the train.12 The engine was still on the rails. The first truck, an ordinary bogey, had turned completely head over heels, killing and terribly injuring some of the platelayers who were upon it; but it lay quite clear of the track. The next two armoured trucks, which contained the Durban Light Infantry, were both derailed, one still upright and the other on its side. They lay jammed against each other in disorder, blocking the homeward path of the rest. Behind the overturned trucks the Durban Light Infantry men, bruised, shaken, and some severely injured, had found a temporary shelter. The enemy’s fire was continuous, and soon there mingled with the rifles the bang of the field-guns and the near explosion of their shells. We were in the toils of the enemy.

As I passed the engine another shrapnel burst immediately as it seemed overhead, hurling its contents with a rasping rush through the air. The driver at once sprang out of the cab and ran to the shelter of the overturned trucks. His face cut open by a splinter streamed with blood, and he complained in bitter, futile indignation. ‘He was a civilian. What did they think he was paid for? To be killed by a bombshell – not he! He would not stay another minute.’ It looked as if his excitement and misery – he was dazed by the blow on his head – would prevent him from working the engine further, and as only he understood the machinery, the hope of escape would thus be cut off. So I told him that no man was hit twice on the same day: that a wounded man who continued to do his duty was always rewarded for distinguished gallantry, and that he might never have this chance again. On this he pulled himself together, wiped the blood off his face, climbed back into the cab of his engine, and thereafter obeyed every order which I gave him.13

I formed the opinion that it would be possible, using the engine as a ram, to pull and push the two wrecked trucks clear of the line, and consequently that escape for the whole force was possible. The line appeared to be uninjured, no rail had been removed. I returned along the line to Captain Haldane’s truck and told him through a loophole what was the position and what I proposed we should do. He agreed to all I said and undertook to keep the enemy hotly engaged meanwhile.

I was very lucky in the hour that followed not to be hit. It was necessary for me to be almost continuously moving up and down the train or standing in the open, telling the engine-driver what to do. The first thing was to detach the truck which was half off the rails from the one completely so. To do this the engine had to be moved so as to tug the partly derailed truck backwards along the line until it was clear of the other’s wreckage, and then to throw it completely off the rails. The dead weight of the iron truck half on the sleepers was enormous, and the engine wheels skidded vainly several times before any hauling power was obtained. At last the truck was drawn sufficiently far back, and I called for volunteers to overturn it from the side, while the engine pushed it from the end. It was very evident that these men would be exposed to considerable danger. Twenty were called for and there was an immediate response, but only nine men, including the Major of the Durban Light Infantry and four or five of the Dublin Fusiliers, actually stepped out into the open. The attempt was nevertheless successful. The truck heeled over further under their pressure, and the engine giving a shove at the right moment, it fell off the line, and the track seemed clear. Safety and success appeared in sight together, but one of the bitterest disappointments of my life overtook them.

The footplate of the engine was about 6 in. wider than the tender and jammed against the corner of the newly overturned truck. It did not seem safe to push very hard, lest the engine itself should be derailed. We uncoupled the engine from the rear trucks, and time after time moved it back a yard or two and butted forward at the obstruction. Each time it moved a little, but soon it was evident that complications had set in. The newly derailed truck had become jammed in a T-shaped position with the one originally off the line, and the more the engine pushed, the greater became the block.

It occurred to me that if the trucks only jammed tighter after the forward pushing, they might be loosened by again pulling backwards. Now, however, a new difficulty arose. The coupling chains of the engine would not reach by five or six inches those of the overturned truck. Search was made for a spare coupling. By a solitary gleam of good luck, one was found. The engine hauled at the wreckage and before the chain parted pulled it about a yard backwards and off the track. Now surely the line was clear at last. But again the corner of the engine footplate jammed with the corner of the truck, and again we came to a jarring halt. The heat and excitement of the work were such as to absorb me completely. I remember thinking that it was like working in front of an iron target at a rifle-range at which men were continually firing. We struggled for seventy minutes among those clanging, rending iron boxes, amid the repeated explosions of shells and the ceaseless hammering of bullets, and with only five or six inches of twisted ironwork to make the difference between danger, captivity and shame on the one hand, and safety, freedom and triumph on the other.

Above all things we had to be careful not to throw the engine off the line. But at last, as the artillery firing steadily increased and the second gun came into action from the opposite flank, I decided to run a great risk. The engine was backed to its fullest extent and driven full tilt at the obstruction. There was a harsh crunching tear, the engine reeled on the rails, and as the obstructing truck reared upwards, ground its way past and gained the homeward side, free and, as it turned out, safe. But our three remaining trucks were fifty yards away, still the wrong side of the obstruction, which had fallen back into its original place after the engine had passed. What were we to do? Certainly we could not take the engine back. Could we then drag the trucks by hand up to the engine? They were narrower than the engine and there would be just room for them to slip past.

I went back again to Captain Haldane. He accepted the plan. He ordered his men to climb out of their steel pen and try to push it towards the engine. The plan was sound enough, but it broke down under the force of circumstances. The truck was so heavy that it required all hands to move it; the fire was so hot and the confusion so great and increasing that the men drifted away from the exposed side. The enemy, relieved of our counter-fire, were now plainly visible in large numbers on the face of the hill, firing furiously. We then agreed that the engine should go slowly back along the line with all the wounded, who were now numerous, and that the Dublins and the Durban men should retreat on foot, sheltering themselves behind the engine which would go at a foot’s pace. Upwards of forty persons, of whom the greater part were streaming with blood, were crowded on the engine and its tender, and we began to move slowly forward. I was in the cab of the engine directing the engine-driver. It was crammed so full of wounded men that one could scarcely move. The shells burst all around, some striking the engine, others dashing the gravel of the track upon it and its unhappy human freight. The pace increased, the infantry outside began to lag and then to be left behind. At last I forced the engine driver to stop altogether, but before I could get the engine stopped we were already 300 yards away from our infantry. Close at hand was the bridge across the Blue Krantz River, a considerable span. I told the engine-driver to cross the bridge and wait on the other side, and forcing my way out of the cab I got down on to the line and went back along it to find Captain Haldane, and to bring him and his Dublin Fusiliers along.

But while these events had been taking place everything else had been in movement. I had not retraced my steps 200 yards when, instead of Haldane and his company, two figures in plain clothes appeared upon the line. ‘Platelayers!’ I said to myself, and then with a surge of realisation, ‘Boers!’ My mind retains its impression of these tall figures, full of energy, clad in dark, flapping clothes, with slouch, storm-driven hats, poising on their levelled rifles hardly a hundred yards away. I turned again and ran back towards the engine, the two Boers firing as I ran between the metals. Their bullets, sucking to right and left, seemed to miss only by inches. We were in a small cutting with banks about six feet high on either side. I flung myself against the bank of the cutting. It gave no cover. Another glance at the two figures; one was now kneeling to aim. Movement seemed the only chance. Again I darted forward: again two soft kisses sucked in the air; but nothing struck me. This could not endure. I must get out of the cutting – that damnable corridor! I jigged to the left, and scrambled up the bank. The earth sprang up beside me. I got through the wire fence unhurt. Outside the cutting was a tiny depression. I crouched in this, struggling to get my breath again.

Fifty yards away was a small platelayer’s cabin of masonry; there was cover there. About 200 yards away was the rocky gorge of the Blue Krantz River; there was plenty of cover there. I determined to make a dash for the river. I rose to my feet. Suddenly on the other side of the railway, separated from me by the rails and two uncut wire fences, I saw a horseman galloping furiously, a tall, dark figure, holding his rifle in his right hand. He pulled up his horse almost in its own length and shaking the rifle at me shouted a loud command. We were forty yards apart. That morning I had taken with me, Correspondent-status notwithstanding, my Mauser pistol. I thought I could kill this man, and after the treatment I had received I earnestly desired to do so. I put my hand to my belt, the pistol was not there. When engaged in clearing the line, getting in and out of the engine, etc., I had taken it off. It came safely home on the engine. I have it now! But at this moment I was quite unarmed. Meanwhile, I suppose in about the time this takes to tell, the Boer horseman, still seated on his horse, had covered me with his rifle. The animal stood stock still, so did he, and so did I. I looked towards the river, I looked towards the platelayer’s hut. The Boer continued to look along his sights. I thought there was absolutely no chance of escape, if he fired he would surely hit me, so I held up my hands and surrendered myself a prisoner of war.

‘When one is alone and unarmed,’ said the great Napoleon, in words which flowed into my mind in the poignant minutes that followed, ‘a surrender may be pardoned.’ Still he might have missed; and the Blue Krantz ravine was very near and the two wire fences were still uncut. However, the deed was done. Thereupon my captor lowered his rifle and beckoned to me to come across to him. I obeyed. I walked through the wire fences and across the line and stood by his side. He sprang off his horse and began firing in the direction of the bridge upon the retreating engine and a few straggling British figures. Then when the last had disappeared he re-mounted and at his side I tramped back towards the spot where I had left Captain Haldane and his company. I saw none of them. They were already prisoners. I noticed that it was raining hard. As I plodded through the high grass by the side of my captor a disquieting and timely reflection came into my mind. I had two clips of Mauser ammunition, each holding ten rounds, in two little breast pockets one on each side of my khaki coat. These cartridges were the same as I had used at Omdurman, and were the only kind supplied for the Mauser pistol. They were what are called ‘soft-nosed bullets’. I had never given them a thought until now; and it was borne in upon me that they might be a very dangerous possession. I dropped the right-hand clip on the ground without being seen. I had got the left-hand clip in my hand and was about to drop it, when my captor looked down sharply and said in English, ‘What have you got there?’

‘What is it?’ I said, opening the palm of my hand, ‘I picked it up.’

He took it, looked at it and threw it away. We continued to plod on until we reached the general gang of prisoners and found ourselves speedily in the midst of many hundreds of mounted Boers who streamed into view, in long columns of twos and threes, many holding umbrellas over their heads in the pouring rain.

Such is the episode of the armoured train and the story of my capture on November 15, 1899.

It was not until three years later, when the Boer Generals visited England to ask for some loan or assistance on behalf of their devastated country, that I was introduced at a private luncheon to their leader, General Botha. We talked of the war and I briefly told the story of my capture. Botha listened in silence; then he said, ‘Don’t you recognize me? I was that man. It was I who took you prisoner. I, myself,’ and his bright eyes twinkled with pleasure. Botha in white shirt and frock-coat looked very different in all save size and darkness of complexion from the wild war-time figure I had seen that rough day in Natal. But about the extraordinary fact there can be no doubt. He had entered upon the invasion of Natal as a burgher; his own disapproval of the war had excluded him from any high command at its outset. This was his first action. But as a simple private burgher serving in the ranks he had galloped on ahead and in front of the whole Boer forces in the ardour of pursuit. Thus we met.

Few men that I have known have interested me more than Louis Botha. An acquaintance formed in strange circumstances and upon an almost unbelievable introduction ripened into a friendship which I greatly valued. I saw in this grand, rugged figure, the Father of his country, the wise and profound statesman, the farmer-warrior, the crafty hunter of the wilderness, the deep, sure man of solitude.

In 1906 when, as newly elected first Prime Minister of the Transvaal, he came to London to attend the Imperial Conference, a great banquet was given to the Dominion Prime Ministers in Westminster Hall. I was Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, and as the Boer Leader, so recently our enemy, passed up the hall to his place, he paused to say to my mother, who stood by my side, ‘He and I have been out in all weathers.’ It was surely true.

Space does not allow me here to recount the many important matters of public business in which I was, over a long period of years, brought in contact with this great man. To me it was that he first disclosed his romantic project of presenting the Cullinan Diamond – of purest water and at least twenty times the size of any other – to the King. It fell to my lot to expound the whole of the policy of giving self-government to the Transvaal and the Orange Free State and to conduct the Constitution Bills through the House of Commons. Afterwards at the Board of Trade and at the Admiralty I was in frequent contact with General Botha and his colleague Smuts, while they ruled their country with such signal skill during the fifteen years from 1906 to the end of the Great War.

Botha always felt he had a special call upon my attention. Whenever he visited Europe we saw each other many times, in council, at dinner, at home and in the public offices. His unerring instinct warned him of the approach of the great struggle. In 1913, when he returned from a visit to Germany where he had been taking the waters for a cure, he warned me most earnestly of the dangerous mood prevailing there. ‘Mind you are ready,’ he said. ‘Do not trust those people. I know they are very dangerous. They mean you mischief. I hear things you would not hear. Mind you have all your ships ready. I can feel that there is danger in the air. And what is more,’ he added, ‘when the day comes I am going to be ready too. When they attack you, I am going to attack German South-West Africa and clear them out once and for all. I will be there to do my duty when the time comes. But you, with the Navy, mind you are not caught by surprise.’

Chance and romance continued to weave our fortunes together in a strange way. On the 28th or 29th of July, 1914, midway in the week of crisis which preceded the world explosion, I was walking away from the House of Commons after Question Time and met in Palace Yard one of the South African Ministers, Mr de Graaf, a very able Dutchman whom I had known for a long time. ‘What does it mean? What do you think is going to happen?’ he asked. ‘I think it will be war,’ I replied, ‘and I think Britain will be involved. Does Botha know how critical it is?’ De Graaf went away looking very grave, and I thought no more of the incident; but it had its consequences.

That night De Graaf telegraphed to Botha saying ‘Churchill thinks war certain and Great Britain involved’ or words to that effect. Botha was away from the seat of government; he was in the northern Transvaal, and General Smuts was acting in his stead at Pretoria. The telegram was laid before Smuts. He looked at it, pushed it on one side, and continued working through his files of papers. Then when he had finished he looked at it again. ‘There must be something in this,’ he thought, ‘or De Graaf would not have telegraphed’; and he repeated the telegram to the absent Prime Minister in the northern Transvaal. It reached General Botha many hours later, but it reached him in time. That very night he was to start by train for Delagoa Bay, and the next morning he was to embark for his return journey to Cape Town on board a German ship. But for this telegram, so he afterwards told me, he would have been actually at sea on a German vessel when war was declared. The Prime Minister, the all-powerful national leader of South Africa, would have been in the hands of the enemy at the very moment when large areas of the South African Union were trembling on the verge of rebellion. One cannot measure the evils which might have come upon South Africa had such a disaster taken place. Instantly on receiving the message General Botha cancelled all his plans and returned by special train to Pretoria, which he reached before the outbreak and in time.

His grand exertions in the war, the risks he ran, the steadfast courage which he showed, the great command he exercised over his people, the brilliant manner in which he overran German South-West Africa, his rugged animated counsels at the meetings of the Imperial War Cabinet in 1917, his statesmanship and noble bearing after the victory in the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919 – all these are matters of history.

I was Secretary of State for War when he quitted England for the last time. He came to see me at the War Office to say goodbye. We talked long about the ups and downs of life and the tremendous and terrible events through which we had safely passed. Many high personages from many countries used in those days of victory to visit me at the War Office, but there was only one whom I myself conducted down the great staircase and put with my own hands into his waiting car. I never saw him again. His death followed speedily on his return to his own country, of which in Peace and War, in Sorrow and in Triumph, in Rebellion and in Reconciliation, he had been a veritable saviour.

This considerable digression will, I hope, be pardoned by the reader, and I make haste to return to the true path of chronology. As I sat drenched and miserable on the ground with the prisoners and some mortally wounded men, I cursed, not only my luck, but my own decision. I could quite decently have gone off upon the engine. Indeed, I think, from what was said about the affair by the survivors, I might even have been extremely well received. I had needlessly and by many exertions involved myself in a useless and hopeless disaster. I had not helped anybody by attempting to return to the company. I had only cut myself out of the whole of this exciting war with all its boundless possibilities of adventure and advancement. I meditated blankly upon the sour rewards of virtue. Yet this misfortune, could I have foreseen the future, was to lay the foundations of my later life. I was not to be done out of the campaign. I was not to languish as a prisoner. I was to escape, and by escaping was to gain a public reputation or notoriety which made me well-known henceforward among my countrymen, and made me acceptable as a candidate in a great many constituencies. I was also put in the position to earn the money which for many years assured my independence and the means of entering Parliament. Whereas if I had gone back on the engine, though I should perhaps have been praised and petted, I might well have been knocked on the head at Colenso a month later, as were several of my associates on Sir Redvers Buller’s Staff.

But these events and possibilities were hidden from me, and it was in dudgeon that I ranged myself in the line of prisoners before the swiftly erected tent of the Boer headquarters. My gloomy reflections took a sharper and a darker turn when I found myself picked out from the other captive officers and ordered to stand by myself apart. I had enough military law to know that a civilian in a half uniform who has taken an active and prominent part in a fight, even if he has not fired a shot himself, is liable to be shot at once by drumhead court-martial. None of the armies in the Great War would have wasted ten minutes upon the business. I therefore stood solitary in the downpour, a prey to gnawing anxiety. I occupied myself in thinking out what answers I should make to the various short, sharp questions which might soon be addressed to me, and what sort of appearance I could keep up if I were soon and suddenly told that my hour had come. After about a quarter of an hour of this I was much relieved when, as a result of deliberations which were taking place inside the tent, I was curtly told to rejoin the others. Indeed I felt quite joyful when a few minutes later a Boer field cornet came out of the tent and said, ‘We are not going to let you go, old chappie, although you are a correspondent. We don’t catch the son of a lord every day.’ I need really never have been alarmed. The Boers were the most humane people where white men were concerned. Kaffirs were a different story, but to the Boer mind the destruction of a white man’s life, even in war, was a lamentable and shocking event. They were the most good-hearted enemy I have ever fought against in the four continents in which it has been my fortune to see active service.

So it was settled that we were all to march off under escort sixty miles to the Boer railhead at Elandslaagte and to be sent to Pretoria as prisoners of war.

10 For this and following chapters, see map of South Africa, pages 246–7.

11 Commander-in-Chief, and Chief of Staff respectively in 1917–18.

12 See diagram on page 223.

13 It was more than ten years before I was able to make good my promise. Nothing was done for this man by the military authorities; but when in 1910 I was Home Secretary, it was my duty to advise the King upon the awards of the Albert Medal. I therefore revived the old records, communicated with the Governor of Natal and the railway company, and ultimately both the driver and his fireman received the highest reward for gallantry open to civilians.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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