With the Boer Forces - Howard Hillegas

From Farm to Battlefield

In the olden days, before men with strange languages and customs entered their country and disturbed the serenity of their life, the Boers were accustomed to make annual trips to the north in search of game, and to exterminate the lions which periodically attacked their flocks and herds. It was customary for relatives to form parties, and these trekked with their long ox-waggons far into the northern Transvaal, and oftentimes into the wilderness beyond the Zambesi. Women and children accompanied the expeditions and remained behind in the ox-waggons while the men rode away into the bush to search for buck, giraffe, and lion. Hardy men and women these were who braved the dangers of wild beasts and the terrors of the fever country, yet these treks to the north were as certain annual functions as the Nachtmaals in the churches. Men who went into the wild bush to hunt for the lions, which had been their only unconquerable enemy for years, learned to know no fear, and with their wives and children formed as hardy a race as virgin soil ever produced. With these pioneers it was not a matter of great pride to have shot a lion, but it was considered a disgrace to have missed one. To husband their sparse supplies of ammunition was their chief object, and to waste a shot by missing the target was to become the subject of good-natured derision and ridicule. Fathers, sons, and grandsons entered the bush together, and when there was a lion or other wild beast to be stalked the amateur hunter was initiated into the mysteries of backwoodsmanship by his experienced elders. Consequently the Boers became a nation of proficient lion-hunters, and efficiently ridded their country of the pest which continually threatened their safety, the safety of their families and that of their possessions of live-stock.

In later years, when the foreigner who bought his farms and searched for the wealth hidden on them became so numerous that the Boer appeared to be an unwelcome guest in his own house, the old-time lion-hunter had foundation for believing that a new enemy had suddenly arisen. The Boer attempted to placate the new enemy by means which failed. Afterward a bold but unsuccessful inroad was made into the country for the purpose of relieving him of the necessity of ruling it. Thereupon the old-time lion-fighting spirit arose within the Boer, and he began to prepare for future hunting expeditions. He stocked his arsenals with the best guns and ammunition the world produced, and he secured instructors to teach him the most modern and approved methods of fighting the new-style lion. He erected forts and stockades in which he might take refuge in the event that the lions should prove too strong and numerous, and he made laws and regulations so that there might be no delay when the proper moment arrived for attacking the enemy. While these matters were being perfected further efforts were made to conciliate the enemy, but they proved futile, and it became evident that the farmer and the lion of 1899 were as implacable enemies as the farmer and lion of 1850. The lion of 1899 believed his cause to be as just as did the lion of half a century before, while the farmer felt that the lion, having been created by Nature, had a just claim upon Nature and her works for support, but desired that sustenance should be sought from other parts of Nature's stores. He insisted, moreover, if the lion wished to remain on the plantation that he should not question the farmer's ownership nor assume that the lion was an animal of a higher and finer grade than the farmer.

A meeting between the representatives of the lions and the farmers led to no better understanding; in fact when, several days afterward, all the farmers gathered at the historic Paardekraal monument, they were unanimously of the opinion that the lion should be driven out of the country, or at least subdued to such an extent that peace might come and remain. Not since the days of 1877, when, at the same spot, each Boer, holding a stone above his head, vowed to shed his last drop of blood in defence of his country, was the community of farmers so indignant and excited. The aged President himself, fresh from the conference with the lions, urged his countrymen to prevent a conflict but to fight valiantly for their independence and rights if the necessity arose. Piet Joubert, who bore marks of a former conflict with the enemy, wept as he narrated the efforts which had been made to pacify the lions, and finally expressed the belief that every farmer in the country would yield his life's blood rather than surrender the rights for which their fathers had bled and died. When other leaders had spoken, the picturesque custom of renewing the oath of fealty to the country's flag was observed, as it had been every fifth year since the days of Majuba Hill. Ten thousand farmers uncovered their heads, raised their eyes toward the sky and repeated the Boer oath:—

"In the presence of God Almighty, who searcheth the hearts of men, from our homes in the Transvaal we have journeyed to meet again, Free burghers, we ask His mercy and trust in His grace and bind ourselves and our children in a solemn oath to be faithful to one another and to stand by one another in repelling our enemy with our last drop of life-blood. So truly help us, God Almighty."

Ten thousand voices then joined in singing the national anthem and a psalm, and the memorable meeting at this fount of patriotism was closed with a prayer and a benediction.

After this meeting it was uncertain for some months which should attack first; both were preparing as rapidly as possible for the conflict, and the advantage seemed to lie with the one who would strike first. The leaders of the lions seemed to have forgotten that they had lion-hunters as their opponents, and the farmers neglected to take into account the fact that the lion tribe was exceedingly numerous and spread over the whole earth. When the leading farmers met in conclave at Pretoria and heard the demands of the lions they laughed at them, sent an ultimatum in reply, and started for the frontier to join those of their countrymen who had gone there days before to watch that no body of lions should make another surreptitious attack upon their country. Another community of farmers living to the south, who had also been harassed by the lions for many years and felt that their future safety lay in the subjugation of the lion tribe, joined their neighbours in arms and went forth with them to the greatest lion-hunt that South Africa has ever had.

The enemy and all other men called it war, but to the Boers it was merely a hunt for lions such as they had engaged in oftentimes before.

The old Boer farmer hardly needed the proclamation from Pretoria to tell him that there was to be a lion-hunt, and that he should prepare for it immediately. He had known that the hunt was inevitable long before October 11, 1899, and he had made preparations for it months and even years before. When the official notification from the Commandant-General reached him through the field-cornet of the district in which he lived, he was prepared in a few minutes to start for the frontier where the British lions were to be found. The new Mauser rifle, which the Government had given him a year or two before, was freshly oiled and its working order inspected. The bandolier, filled with bright new cartridges, was swung over his shoulder, and then, after putting a Testament into his coat pocket, he was ready to proceed. He despised a uniform of any kind as smacking of anti-republican ideas and likely to attract the attention of the enemy. The same corduroy or mole-skin trousers, dark coat, wide-brimmed hat, and home-made shoes which he was accustomed to wear in every-day life on the farm were good enough for a hunting expedition, and he needed and yearned for nothing better. A uniform would have caused him to feel uneasy and out of place, and when lions were the game he wanted to be thoroughly comfortable so that his arm and aim might be steady. His vrouw, who was filling a linen sack with bread, biltong, and coffee to be consumed on his journey to the hunting grounds, may have taken the opportunity while he was cleaning his rifle to sew a rosette of the vierkleur of the Republic on his hat, or, remembering the custom observed in the old-time wars against the natives, may have found the fluffy brown tail of a meerkatz and fixed it on the upturned brim of his grimy hat. When these few preparations were concluded the Kafir servant brought his master's horse and fixed to the front of the saddle a small roll containing a blanket and a mackintosh. To another part of the saddle he strapped a small black kettle to be used for the preparation of the lion-hunter's only luxury, coffee, and then the list of impedimenta was complete. The horseman who brought the summons to go to the frontier had hardly reached the neighbouring farmhouse when the Boer lion-hunter, uniformed, outfitted, and armed, was on his horse's back and ready for any duty at any place. With a rifle, bandolier, and a horse the Boer felt as if he were among kindred spirits, and nothing more was necessary to complete his temporal happiness. The horse is a part of the Boer hunter, and he might as well have gone to the frontier without a rifle as to go in the capacity of a foot soldier. The Boer is the modern Centaur, and therein is found an explanation for part of his success in hunting.

When once the Boer left his home he became an army unto himself. He needed no one to care for himself and his horse, nor were the leaders of the army obliged to issue myriads of orders for his guidance. He had learned long before that he should meet the other hunters of his ward at a certain spot in case there was a call to arms, and thither he went as rapidly as his pony could carry him. When he arrived at the meeting-place he found all his neighbours and friends gathered in groups and discussing the situation. Certain ones of them had brought with them big white-tented ox-waggons for conveying ammunition, commissariat stores, and such extra luggage as some might wish to carry; and these were sent ahead as soon as the field-cornet, the military leader of the ward, learned that all his men had arrived from their homes. The individual hunters then formed what was called a commando, whether it consisted of fifteen or fifty men, and proceeded in a body to a second pre-arranged meeting-place, where all the ward-commandos of a certain district were asked to congregate. When all these commandos had arrived in one locality, they fell under the authority of the commandant who had been elected to that post by the burghers at the preceding election. This official had received his orders directly from the Commandant-General, and but little time was consumed in disseminating them to the burghers through the various field-cornets. After all the ward-commandos had arrived, the district-commando was set in motion toward that part of the frontier where its services were required; and a most unwarlike spectacle it presented as it rolled along over the muddy, slippery veld. In the van were the huge, lumbering waggons with hordes of hullabalooing natives cracking their long raw-hide whips and urging the sleek, long-horned oxen forward through the mud. Following the waggon-train came the cavalcade of armed lion-hunters, grim and determined-looking enough from a distance, but most peaceful and inoffensive when once they understood the stranger's motives. No order or discipline was visible in the commando on the march, and if the rifles and bandoliers had not appeared so prominently it might readily have been mistaken for a party of Nachtmaal celebrants on the way to Pretoria. Now and then some youths emerged from the crowd and indulged in an impromptu horse-race, only to return and receive a chiding from their elders for wasting their horses' strength unnecessarily. Occasionally the keen eyes of a rider spied a buck in the distance, and then several of the lion-hunters sped obliquely off the track and replenished the commando larder with much smaller game than was the object of their expedition.

If the commando came from a district far from the frontier, it proceeded to the railway station nearest to the central meeting-place, and then embarked for the front. No extraordinary preparations were necessary for the embarking of a large commando, nor was much time lost before the hunters were speeding towards their destination. Every man placed his own horse in a cattle-car, his saddle, bridle, and haversack in the passenger-coach, and then assisted in hoisting the cumbersome ox-waggons on flat-top trucks. There were no specially deputised men to entrain the horses, others to load the waggons, and still others to be subtracted from the fighting strength of the nation by attending to such detail duties as require the services of hundreds of men in other armies.

After the burghers were entrained and the long commando train was set in motion the most fatiguing part of the campaign was before them. To ride on a South African railway is a disagreeable duty in times of peace, but in war-times, when trains were long and overcrowded, and the rate of progress never higher than fifteen miles an hour, then all other campaigning duties were pleasurable enjoyments. The majority of burghers, unaccustomed to journeying in railway trains, relished the innovation and managed to make merry even though six of them, together with all their saddles and personal luggage, were crowded into one compartment. The singing of hymns occupied much of their time on the journey, and when they tired of this they played practical jokes upon one another and amused themselves by leaning out of the windows and jeering at the men who were guarding the railway bridges and culverts. At the stations they grasped their coffee-pots and rushed to the locomotive to secure hot water with which to prepare their beverage. It seldom happened that any Boer going to the front carried any liquor with him and, although the delays and vexations of the journey were sufficiently irritating to serve as an excuse, drunkenness practically never occurred. Genuine good-fellowship prevailed among them, and no quarrelling was to be observed. It seemed as if every one of them was striving to live the ideal life portrayed in the Testament which they read assiduously scores of times every day. Whether a train was delayed an hour at a siding or whether it stopped so suddenly that all were thrown from their seats, there was no profane language, but usually jesting and joking instead. Little discomforts which would cause an ordinary American or European soldier to use volumes of profanity were passed by without notice or comment by these psalm-singing Boers, and inconveniences of greater moment, like the disarrangement of the commissariat along the route, caused only slight remonstrances from them. An angry man was as rarely seen as one who cursed, and more rare than either was an intoxicated one.

Few of the men were given to boasting of the valour they would display in warfare or of their abilities in marksmanship. They had no battle-cry of revenge like "Remember the Maine!" or "Avenge Majuba!" except it was the motto: "For God, Country, and Independence!" which many bore on the bands of their hats and on the stocks of their rifles. Very occasionally one boasted of the superiority of the Boer, and still more rarely would one be heard to set three months as the limit required to conquer the British army. The name of Jameson, the raider, was frequently heard, but always in a manner which might have led one unacquainted with recent Transvaal history to believe that he was a patron-saint of the Republic. It was not a cry of "Remember Jameson" for the wrongs he committed but rather a plea to honour him for having placed the Republic on its guard against the dangers which they believed threatened it from beyond its borders. It was frequently suggested, when his name was mentioned, that after the war a monument should be erected to him because he had given them warning and that they had profited by the warning to the extent that they had armed themselves thoroughly. Seldom was any boasting concerning the number of the enemy that would fall to Boer bullets; instead there was a tone of sorrow when they spoke of the soldiers of the Queen who would die on the field of battle while fighting for a cause concerning the justice or injustice of which the British soldier could not speak.

After the commando-train reached its destination the burghers again took charge of their own horses and conveyances, and in even less time than it required to place them on the train they were unloaded and ready to proceed to the point where the generals needed their assistance. The Boer was always considerate of his horse, and it became a custom to delay for several hours after leaving the train, in order that the animals might feed and recover from the fatigues of the journey before starting out on a trek over the veld. After the horses had been given an opportunity to rest, the order to "upsaddle" came from the commandant, and then the procession, with the ox-waggons in the van, was again formed. The regular army order was then established, scouts were sent ahead to determine the location of the enemy, and the officers for the first time appeared to lead their men in concerted action against the opposing forces. To call the Boer force an army was to add unwarranted elasticity to the word, for it had but one quality in common with such armed forces as Americans or Europeans are accustomed to call by that name. The Boer army fought with guns and gunpowder, but it had no discipline, no drills, no forms, no standards, and not even a roll-call. It was an enlarged edition of the hunting parties which a quarter-century ago went into the Zoutpansberg in search of game—it was a massive aggregation of lion-hunters.