Read Fire Across the Veldt Online

Authors: John Wilcox

Fire Across the Veldt

F
IRE
A
CROSS THE
V
ELDT

J
OHN
W
ILCOX

To the memory of Nigel Cole, lover of history, follower of the adventures of Simon Fonthill and great old friend, this book is fondly dedicated.

On the veldt in the Orange Free State, South Africa. September, 1900

‘Damn,’ Simon Fonthill swore softly and wrinkled his eyes against the glare from the veldt. ‘Damn again. I think they’re Boers. Hand me the field glasses.’

The British army-issue binoculars were thrust into his hand and he focused them on the kopje that stood out from the plain, perhaps a mile away – except that, as he knew well, distances were deceptive on the veldt and it was more likely to be some three or four miles distant. He focused the glasses and stood erect in the stirrups, the better to see.

Yes. Boers all right. They sprang into view as though moving just a few hundred yards away. Bearded men wearing loose civilian clothing, wide, broken-brimmed hats and bandoliers across their chests, mounted on small Basuto ponies, streaming down from the chiselled rocks of the kopje, spreading out across the undulating grass and moving towards them. Fast.

‘Do we fight ’em, bach sir?’ asked Jenkins, easing his Lee Enfield rifle from its saddle holster.

Fonthill, still squinting through the binoculars, shook his head. ‘No. There are about twenty-five of ’em. Far too many. We have no cover. These chaps are the best marksmen in the world and they’d pick us off easily from a mile away before we could get a shot off.’ He lowered the glasses. ‘We’d stand no chance. They will be after our horses and our rifles.’

He looked ruefully across at his wife, sitting less than comfortably in the small Cape cart that carried their provisions and tent. ‘Sorry, darling,’ he said. ‘Thank you for not saying I told you so.’

Alice Fonthill inclined her head. ‘Ah, how nice – and how unusual – to be acknowledged as having been in the right for once. So what do we do, then?’

‘We try and talk our way out of it. But I don’t want to lose the horses or the rifles and revolvers.’ He turned to their two companions. Jenkins, his former batman and fellow survivor of dozens of hostile encounters in Queen Victoria’s ‘little wars’ in the British Empire over two decades, sat, like him, on horseback alongside the cart. Mzingeli, once their black tracker in Matabeleland and now the manager of their farm there, sat quietly holding the mule reins on the driving seat of the cart, his rifle by his side.

‘Tuck the rifles under the tent in the cart.’ Fonthill spoke quickly now, the glasses at his eyes once more. ‘Try and do it unobtrusively. They will have glasses on us too. Put your revolvers into Alice’s bag, right at the bottom. Now, when they get here, let me do the talking.’

‘Umph.’ Jenkins’s snort was quite audible. But he said nothing more and his eyes were cold as he carefully buttoned up Alice’s bag
and looked out towards the approaching horsemen, easing in its scabbard the long knife that hung from his belt.

Fonthill had, indeed, ignored his wife’s warning – and that of several British officers – in downloading their cart, mules and horses from the armoured train that had carried them all from the Cape Colony when it had been derailed some ten miles to the south. The Boers had made a thorough job of tearing up the rail track. ‘They’re getting good at it,’ confessed the sapper officer accompanying them. ‘We spend more time repairing these blasted lines than we do chasing their commandos.’

He had advised them to wait while camp was made for the night and work was begun on the bent and twisted tracks. Alice, too, had suggested that the Boers who had torn up the line might still be in the vicinity and it seemed unwise to put themselves in harm’s way when they were in no great rush to reach Pretoria, the headquarters of Field Marshal Roberts and General Kitchener. Fonthill, however, had insisted that they save time by riding on some forty miles to the north where a branch line joined the main one and another train was expected along it early the next morning. ‘The Boers won’t be interested in us,’ he said. ‘After all, we’re just civilians.’

Yet now, he reflected, as he looked around him, they were civilians carrying British rifles, an army-issue tent, binoculars and rations. The explanation would have to be good. Unless, of course, the approaching party was made up of simple burghers with no one of seniority in command. If that were so, they stood a chance.

The Boers were upon them quickly and they fanned out to surround the little party. They did, indeed, look like Dutch burghers – farmers, however, who had been living out on the veldt in all weathers with
their sheep and cattle and who had not seen their homes for many a day. Their clothes were torn and threadbare and some had forsaken boots for native sandals. Their long beards were unkempt and spread out across their chests, making them look like biblical prophets. Only their oiled cartridge bandoliers and their long Mauser rifles, the stocks of which now rested on their thighs, hinted at their fame as fighting men who had at first humiliated and then taunted the British army for well over a year.

Fonthill knew of their reputation. The war was supposed to have been over months ago when, after the Boer successes at Colenso, Modder River and Spion Kop, the British army had been reinforced and, laboriously but surely, had marched north and crushed the Boer army in the field at Paardeberg, relieved Ladysmith and Mafeking and then occupied the Boer capitals of Bloemfontein and Pretoria. But that had been the easy part. The Boer army – this force of amateur mounted infantry – had melted away to re-form out in the veldt, behind the British lines, as fast-moving commandos, striking at the imperial lines of communications and making a laughing stock of Field Marshal Roberts’s claim that ‘the war was as good as over’. It was to help the army in fighting this new-style, elusive, guerrilla warfare that Simon had answered the call from General Kitchener, Roberts’s chief of staff, to come to South Africa.

Now Simon ran his eye along the stern ranks of the horsemen with interest. Would they have a leader of some sophistication? A man who would see the soldier behind Fonthill’s civilian garb and
wife-companion
?

His answer came as one man pushed forward to address him. He seemed to be just below medium height – maybe five foot seven
inches – and he was dressed like the rest in a homespun and now well-worn suit, with dirty, wide-brimmed hat. But he wore long riding boots and a Prince Albert gold chain was looped across his waistcoat and, lugubriously, a battered briefcase was tied to his saddle pommel, his only sign of rank. His beard was neatly trimmed and his dark eyes were set well apart above high cheekbones in a face that seemed hard and unforgiving. He looked directly at Fonthill.

‘You are English?’ he asked, with the nasal intonation of an Afrikaner.

‘Yes. My name is Simon Fonthill.’ Fonthill turned courteously and indicated the others. ‘This is my wife Alice, my friend Mr Jenkins and my farm manager Mr Mzingeli.’

The horseman frowned at the appellation ‘Mister’ given to Mzingeli.

‘We don’t call Kaffirs “mister”,’ he said.

‘I know you don’t. But I do. And he is not a Kaffir.’

Mzingeli did not move but sat quite still, his black eyes staring far away at the horizon, his tightly curled white hair peeping out from under his wide-brimmed hat.

The Boer did not rise to the reply but paused for a moment before asking. ‘Where have you come from and what is your destination?’

‘We were travelling up from the Cape Colony on board the train which was derailed about ten miles or so south of here. I was anxious to get on to Pretoria and so chose to download our horses and cape cart and proceed that way in the hope that we could pick up another train tomorrow.’ He risked a smile. ‘We were warned that there were Boers in the area but, as we are civilians, I felt that we would come to no harm.’

The smile was not returned. ‘Nor shall you, but you must hand over the rifles,’ he nodded to the cart, ‘that you have hidden under that tent there and I will also take your horses. You may retain your cart, tent and mules.’ The Boer turned and gave a brief order. Immediately, the tent was thrown onto the ground and the rifles seized. One was handed to the leader.

He examined it with interest. ‘Hmm. A point 303 Lee Enfield. British army issue.’ He looked up. ‘What is a civilian doing with the most modern British army rifle?’

Fonthill shrugged his shoulders. ‘We had to have rifles. We had a long way to travel and war or no war the African veldt can be a dangerous place. The only rifles one can buy in Cape Town these days are old British issue. You will see that these are not exactly the latest thing. They are Lee Enfields Mark I. I believe the army now have either Lee Metfords or later Enfields. From what I hear of your shooting, I think I’d rather have Mausers, anyway.’

This time the Boer allowed himself a half smile. ‘Very well.’ Then he frowned. ‘Ah, but you have three rifles. One presumably for each man. That means that you have armed your Kaffir.’ A low murmur rose from the ring of horsemen. ‘It is against the rule of warfare for your people to arm the blacks and coloureds. This is a white man’s war. We shoot all Kaffirs we find who carry arms.’

Fonthill sighed. ‘Well,’ he said slowly, ‘if you shoot Mzingeli –
Mister
Mzingeli – then you must shoot all of us, because we shall all attack you. To repeat, Mr Mzingeli is not a Kaffir. He is not a servant. He is the son of a Matabele chieftain and he partly owns and manages my farm in Rhodesia. I asked him to travel here so that we could discuss farm matters. You will not, I repeat,
not
, shoot him.’

A silence fell on the little gathering. Mzingeli remained looking steadily ahead. Jenkins’s hand drifted slowly towards his knife.

The impasse was broken by Alice. She stepped down from the cart and moved towards the Boer leader. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ she said, ‘but if we are all going to die I would be so grateful to know your name.’ And she looked upwards into the man’s face with a sweet and ingratiating smile.

‘What? Oh. Ah. My name is Christiaan de Wet.’

‘Ah!’ Alice seemed jubilant and from somewhere had already produced a notebook and pencil. ‘I thought so. More like
General
de Wet I believe. How do you do.’ She held up her hand and grasped that handed reluctantly to her. ‘Perhaps you do not know it, sir, but you have earned widespread fame back in England as the most intrepid of the Boer commando leaders. Perhaps I should explain. I am Simon Fonthill’s wife but I am also known as Alice Griffith, my maiden name, and I have been a war correspondent for the London
Morning Post
for the last … ahem … nearly twenty years. In fact, we are on our way to Pretoria so that I can be registered with General Kitchener as part of the corps of correspondents assigned to his headquarters. Oh, I am so glad I have met you, General. Now, please, before you shoot us all would you be so kind as to answer just a few questions?’

‘What? Ach, madam. I am not going to shoot you all. But I cannot stay here to be interviewed.’ He looked around him. ‘It is getting dark and …’

‘Oh, just a couple of questions while we have you.’ Alice stood poised, pencil over notebook. ‘Surely, you cannot hope to win this war by conducting guerrilla operations, can you? Swooping down
from out of the veldt like brigands and then riding off again. Now what is your objective, exactly?’

De Wet stiffened in the saddle. ‘We fight, madam, to free our country. We are an independent state and we fight to stay that way.’

‘But how long can you continue?’ She gestured with her pencil. ‘If I may say so, your command here looks a little,’ she smiled again, ‘shall we say lacklustre? Your troops look as though they could do with a good meal and a bath.’

Fonthill drew in his breath with a hiss, but his wife was continuing.

‘And, of course, you are severely outnumbered by the British. This is just a small band. To repeat, how long can you continue fighting in this way?’

De Wet scowled down at her. ‘We fight until the end, madam. We are Boers. We live in the saddle and we shall harry and attack the Khakis until they leave our country. And there are many of us fighting in the veldt across the Free State, in the Transvaal, and soon, in the Cape Colony.’ He swung his arm behind him. ‘This is not all of my commando. The rest of it is there behind that—’

He halted in mid flow, realising that he was talking far too much. ‘Enough of this.’ He turned back to Fonthill. ‘Dismount now and,’ he nodded to Jenkins, ‘you too. We take this horse also.’ And he untied the reins that linked Mzingeli’s mount to the cart. He issued an order and the rifles were swept up and the horses were taken in tow.

De Wet turned to go. ‘I am not sure,’ he said, addressing Fonthill, ‘that you really are a civilian. But we cannot take prisoners so you are free to continue your journey to Pretoria in your cart and we leave you your tent and provisions. But the next time we meet your Kaffir with a gun, we shoot him.’

He wheeled his horse round. Then a small smile returned to his face and he doffed his hat to Alice, bowing low in the saddle. ‘I did not wish to be interviewed, madam,’ he said, ‘but tell your readers in England that we fight on until the end. This will be the war that will not end. Mrs Fonthill, I wish you good—’

Once again he broke off. Then he looked back at Simon with a keen eye. ‘Fonthill,’ he murmured. ‘Fonthill.’ He urged his horse close to Fonthill and looked down on him. ‘It is an unusual name. There was an Englishman at Majuba nineteen years ago when we thrashed the Khakis for the first time in the Transvaal war. I think he was a Fonthill.’

Simon inclined his head. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I was there.’

De Wet removed his hat again and leaning down in the saddle extended his hand. ‘So was I. I remember. We were both much younger. You, in particular, fought well. To the end.’ He shook Fonthill’s hand and replaced his hat. ‘I think you are here to fight again.’ He grinned. ‘So Kitchener must be desperate. Go now, but I think we will meet again.’

Then with a shouted order he wheeled his mount around and the party of Boers cantered away in the lowering twilight, back towards the kopje, moving fast on their light ponies.

Simon’s little party was left standing by the cart exchanging glances. Jenkins broke the silence, his voice rising in Welsh indignation. ‘Bugger me,’ he said. ‘I was on that bloody Majuba ’ill fighting all them years ago just as ’ard as you, look you. Why didn’t ’e remember me?’

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