Richard Harding Davis
STRANGELY enough, the chief sign of war in Pretoria is not shown by the Boers themselves, but in the presence at the capital of the English prisoners. Every night when the town is hidden in darkness there arise from outside its narrow boundaries the two great circles of electric lights which shine down upon the Pretoria race-course and the camp of the British officers. When you drive home from some dinner, when you bid the visitor “goodnight,” and turn for a look at the sleeping town, the last things that meet your eyes are these blazing, vigilant policemen's lanterns, making for the prisoner an endless day, pointing out his every movement, showing him in a shameless glare.
When the first of the prisoners began to arrive at the capital they were placed in the Pretoria race-course, which had also been the temporary home of the Jameson Raiders; but later the officers were moved into the residential quarter of the town, which is a pretty suburb called Sunnyside.
There they were given accommodations in the Model School House, until for several reasons they again were moved, this time into a camp especially prepared for them on the side of a hill, at the opposite edge of the town. In the meanwhile the number of captured Tommies had increased to such proportions that they were taken several miles from the city to an immense camp at Waterval, and the racecourse was reserved for civil prisoners and a hospital for those who were sick or wounded.
The officers were very comfortable at the Model School House, and in comparison with what the camp offers them the change was for the worse. The school-house is just what its name suggests, a model school, with high, well ventilated, well-lighted rooms, broad halls, and, what must have been particularly welcome to the Englishman, a perfectly appointed gymnasium and a good lawn-tennis court. It is a handsome building outside, and when the officers used to sit reading and smoking on its broad verandas, one might have mistaken it for a club. They were given a piano and all the books and writing material they wanted, they could see the calm life of Pretoria passing in the street before them, and, on the whole, were exceedingly well off. It is the tradition of many wars that the generous enemy treats his prisoners with a consideration equal to or even greater than that which he gives to his own men. The moment his enemy surrenders he becomes his guest, and the Boers certainly provided much better accommodations for the officers than those to which their own men are accustomed either in the field or at home. The attitude of the prisoner to his enemy should be no less courteous. But the British officers, in their contempt for their captors, behaved in a most unsportsmanlike, ungentlemanly, and, for their own good, a most foolish manner. They drew offensive caricatures of the Boers over the walls of the schoolhouse, destroyed the children's copy-books and text-books, which certainly was a silly performance, and were rude and “cheeky” to the Boer officials, boasting of what their fellow-soldiers would do to them when they took Pretoria. Their chief offence, however, was in speaking to and shouting at the ladies and young girls who walked past the school-house. Personally, I cannot see why being a prisoner would make me think I might speak to women I did not know; but some of the English officers apparently thought their new condition carried that privilege with it. I do not believe that every one of them misbehaved in this fashion, but it was true of so many that their misconduct brought discredit on all. Some people say that the young girls walked by for the express purpose of being spoken to; and a few undoubtedly did, and one of them was even arrested, after the escape of a well-known war correspondent, on suspicion of having assisted him. But, on the other hand, any number of older women, both Boer and English, have told me that they found it quite impossible to pass the school-house on account of the insulting remarks the officers on the veranda threw to one another concerning them, or made directly to them. At last the officers grew so offensive that a large number of ladies signed a petition and sent it to the Government complaining that the presence of the Englishmen in the heart of the town was a public nuisance. It was partly in consequence of this, and more probably because the number of the prisoners had increased so greatly that there was no longer room for them in the school-house, that they were removed from their comfortable quarters, and sent to the camp.
When I went to see them there, the fact that I was accompanied by a Boer officer did not in the least deter them from abusing and ridiculing his countrymen to me in his presence, so that what little service I had planned to render them was made impossible. After they had sneered and jeered at the Boer official in my hearing, I could not very well turn around and ask him to grant them favors. It was a great surprise to me. I had thought the English officer would remain an officer under any circumstances. When one has refused to fight further with a rifle, it is not becoming to continue the fight with the tongue, nor to insult the man from whom you have begged for mercy. It is not, as Englishmen say, “playing the game.” It is not “cricket.” You cannot ask a man to spare your life, which is what surrendering really means, and then treat him as you would the gutter-snipe who runs to open the door of your hansom. Some day we shall wake up to the fact that the Englishman, in spite of his universal reputation to the contrary, is not a good sportsman because he is not a good loser. As Captain Hanks said when someone asked him what he thought of the Englishman as a sportsman, “He is the cheerfulest winner I ever met.”
There were many sober-minded ones among the prisoners, and one of these devoted himself to covering the walls of a room in the schoolhouse with maps of Natal and of the Orange Free State. These maps were so remarkably well executed that the Director of the school has preserved them for the education of the children. He even wrote to the Government officials asking them to invite the officer who had made the maps to return daily from the camp and complete one he had begun of the Transvaal. I told the officer in camp of this, and he was much amused and pleased, and said he would be only too happy to oblige them.
The escape of Winston Churchill also helped toward the removal of the officers from the centre of Sunnyside to a more secluded spot, although the difficulty of the escape really began after Churchill was clear of Pretoria. His first danger, which was in leaving the schoolhouse, was removed by the fact that when he slipped over the fence the sentry was looking the other way, either by accident or “for revenue only,” as is variously stated. After Churchill was once in the street he was comparatively safe, as there were so many strange uniforms in the Boer Army that a man in full khaki might walk through the streets of Pretoria unchallenged. It was the long journey through the country which made the leave-taking of Churchill, and later of three brother officers, remarkable.
The chances of escape from the camp are almost impossible. It might be done, however, by tunnelling under the fence, or by cutting the wires of the tell-tale electric lights, and, after throwing mattresses over the barbed-wire entanglements, scrambling over them into the darkness. If this were done at many different points along the fence, some men would undoubtedly get away, and the others would undoubtedly be shot.
I visited the camp only once and found it infinitely depressing. The officers are enclosed in a rectangular barbed-wire fencing about as high as a man's head and one hundred and fifty yards in length, and about fifty yards across at either end. At one corner of this is a double gate, studded with barbed wire and guarded by turn-keys. The whole is a sort of a pen into which the officers are herded like zebras at the zoo. Innumerable electric lights are placed at close intervals along the line of this wire fencing, and make the camp as brilliant as a Fall River boat by night. There is not a corner in it in which one could not read fine print. In the middle of the enclosure there is a long corrugated-zinc building with a corrugated-zinc roof. It is hot by day and cold by night and is badly ventilated. At one end are some excellently arranged bath-rooms with shower-baths, and at the other the kitchen and mess-room. The mess-room is as bare as an earth floor, deal tables and benches, and zinc walls can make it. In the sleeping apartment one hundred and forty-two cots are placed almost touching each other. They are in four long rows with two aisles running between. There is no flooring to this building, but slips of oil-cloth stretch down the two aisles. In between the cots the red dust settles freely. There is, of course, no possible privacy, although some of the men have surrounded their beds with temporary screens, and the wall at the head of almost every cot is covered with a strip of blanket or colored cloth, and on this the owner of the bed has pinned pictures from the illustrated weekly papers. It makes the long room look less like a barrack than the children's ward of a hospital. If one can decide from the number of their portraits, the Queen and Marie Studholme seemed to be, with the imprisoned officers, the most popular of all English people, with Lord Roberts a close third. In judging the treatment the Boers have meted out to their prisoners, one must remember that the cots in the zinc shed, the mess-hall, and the bath-rooms are as luxurious as anything to which the majority of the Boers are accustomed. We must take his point of view as to what is comfortable and luxurious, not that of men accustomed to White's and Bachelors'. It is also to be considered that had the officers been decently civil to the Boers, which need not have been difficult for gentlemen for I have never met an uncivil Boer-they might have been treated with even greater leniency.
The camp seemed to me worse than any prison of stone and iron bars that I have ever visited, because it showed freedom so near at hand. The great hills, the red-roofed houses, the trees by the spruit which runs only a hundred yards below the camp, the men and women passing at will beyond the dead line of fifty yards, the cattle grazing, the clouds drifting overhead, all seemed to tantalize and mock at the men, who are not shut off from it by a blind wall, but who can see it clearly through the open cat's cradle of tangled wire.
I went to the prison with Captain Von Lossberg of the Free State Artillery. He himself had taken several prisoners at Sannahspost and was returning to them a Bible and two prayer-books which he had found in their captured kits and which had been given to these officers before they left England by their children. From this the officers could not have thought that he had come to gloat over them, and the fact that he was in an equally bad plight with themselves, with his head in bandages and his arm in a sling owing to their shrapnel and Lee-Metfords, might have appealed to them in his favor. But in spite of his reason for coming, one of them was so exceedingly insulting to him that Von Lossberg told the man that if he had him on the outside of the barbed wire he would thrash him. His brother officers ordered the fellow to be quiet and hustled him away.
I was surprised to find that the habitual desire of the Englishman to be left severely to himself did not follow him into prison. I had expected that I should walk around with the Boer officer, who was sent with me to see that I did not say anything to the officers which I should not, in as lonely state as though I wore a cloak of invisibility. On the contrary, almost all of the prisoners came up at once and gazed and asked questions. Their eagerness over the slight variety which our coming brought to the awful routine of the prison camp, their desire to learn some new thing, to get a fresh whiff of knowledge from the outside world, was so pathetic and disturbing that I do not know that I ever spent a more uncomfortable hour. The Commission on Prisoners do not allow the officers to hear any news of the war except as it is misrepresented in the Volksstem, a single sheet of no value. It is a foolish and unnecessarily hard restriction, but as it exists I had to obey it and was not able to tell the officers anything that they cared to know. Some of them played the game most considerately, appreciating that I could not answer certain questions; but others, when I did not answer, or pretended not to hear, abused the Boers violently, which made it most unpleasant for the Boer officer with me, and did not help to make me more loquacious. But these men were the exception. The majority were only too glad to gain any information from outside without wasting time abusing anybody.
Before the electric lights were lit we stood outside the zinc shed near the gate, and as it grew dark they separated me from my Boer guide and crowded in closer, so that in the dusk I could only see vague outlines of figures and hear voices whispering questions without seeing from where they came. Those nearest me, under cover of these voices from the outside circles, pressed me for some word as to the chance of their release, the probable length of their imprisonment, the nearness of the attacking column, and the safety of friends and relatives. They were so little of the class with which one connects imprisonment, their voices were so strongly reminiscent of the London clubs, the Savoy, and the Gaiety, and so strange in this cattle-pen, that one felt supremely selfish, and, when going away, both mean and apologetic. The fact of being able to pass the barbed wire while they still stood watching one, seemed like flaunting one's own good-fortune and freedom.
What I liked best about them was their genuine and keen interest in the welfare of the Tommies of their several commands who were imprisoned at Waterval.
“Is it true they're sleeping on the ground?” they whispered. “Do you know if they have decent medicines?” “Do they get their money?” “Won't you go and see them, and tell us how they are?”
It was good to find that most of them suffered for their men even more keenly, because unselfishly, than for themselves. For these I wished to do anything which might help the dreary torture of the camp, but in what I tried to do I was unsuccessful.
They form the most picturesque, the most painful, and, as I have said, the only war-like feature of Pretoria. For nights after my visit to them I was haunted by the presence of that crowd pressing close and whispering questions, speaking eagerly far back in the darkness. “Can you tell me was General Hilyard wounded at Pieters? He is my father.” “Is it true my brother was shot at Spion Kop? He was with Thorneycroft.” “Do my people know I am here?” “Will you tell Hay I must see him?” “Will you cable my people that I am all right?” “Do the papers blame us for surrendering? It was not the colonel's fault that we had no outposts!”
In the dusk, they were like a chorus of ghosts, of imprisoned spirits, of “poor little lambs who had lost their way,” and who, caged on the side of a Boer kopje, were trying to get back into the fold of the great world again.
Lewis P. Orans, 2002