CHAPTER 19. PAARDEBERG.
It was six o'clock in the morning when General Pretyman rode up to Lord Roberts's headquarters. Behind him upon a white horse was a dark-bearded man, with the quick, restless eyes of a hunter, middle-sized, thickly built, with grizzled hair flowing from under a tall brown felt hat. He wore the black broadcloth of the burgher with a green summer overcoat, and carried a small whip in his hands. His appearance was that of a respectable London vestryman rather than of a most redoubtable soldier with a particularly sinister career behind him.
The Generals shook hands, and it was briefly intimated to Cronje that his surrender must be unconditional, to which, after a short silence, he agreed. His only stipulations were personal, that his wife, his grandson, his secretary, his adjutant, and his servant might accompany him. The same evening he was despatched to Cape Town, receiving those honourable attentions which were due to his valour rather than to his character. His men, a pallid ragged crew, emerged from their holes and burrows, and delivered up their rifles. It is pleasant to add that, with much in their memories to exasperate them, the British privates treated their enemies with as large-hearted a courtesy as Lord Roberts had shown to their leader. Our total capture numbered some three thousand of the Transvaal and eleven hundred of the Free State. That the latter were not far more numerous was due to the fact that many had already shredded off to their farms. Besides Cronje, Wolverans of the Transvaal, and the German artillerist Albrecht, with forty-four other field-cornets and commandants, fell into our hands. Six small guns were also secured. The same afternoon saw the long column of the prisoners on its way to Modder River, there to be entrained for Cape Town, the most singular lot of people to be seen at that moment upon earth - ragged, patched, grotesque, some with goloshes, some with umbrellas, coffee-pots, and Bibles, their favourite baggage. So they passed out of their ten days of glorious history.
A visit to the laager showed that the horrible smells which had been carried across to the British lines, and the swollen carcasses which had swirled down the muddy river were true portents of its condition. Strong-nerved men came back white and sick from a contemplation of the place in which women and children had for ten days been living. From end to end it was a festering mass of corruption, overshadowed by incredible swarms of flies. Yet the engineer who could face evil sights and nauseous smells was repaid by an inspection of the deep narrow trenches in which a rifleman could crouch with the minimum danger from shells, and the caves in which the non-combatants remained in absolute safety. Of their dead we have no accurate knowledge, but two hundred wounded in a donga represented their losses, not only during a bombardment of ten days, but also in that Paardeberg engagement which had cost us eleven hundred casualties. No more convincing example could be adduced both of the advantage of the defence over the attack, and of the harmlessness of the fiercest shell fire if those who are exposed to it have space and time to make preparations.
A fortnight had elapsed since Lord Roberts had launched his forces from Ramdam, and that fortnight had wrought a complete revolution in the campaign. It is hard to recall any instance in the history of war where a single movement has created such a change over so many different operations. On February 14th Kimberley was in danger of capture, a victorious Boer army was facing Methuen, the lines of Magersfontein appeared impregnable, Clements was being pressed at Colesberg, Gatacre was stopped at Stormberg, Buller could not pass the Tugela, and Ladysmith was in a perilous condition. On the 28th Kimberley had been relieved, the Boer army was scattered or taken, the lines of Magersfontein were in our possession, Clements found his assailants retiring before him, Gatacre was able to advance at Stormberg, Buller had a weakening army in front of him, and Ladysmith was on the eve of relief. And all this had been done at the cost of a very moderate loss of life, for most of which Lord Roberts was in no sense answerable. Here at last was a reputation so well founded that even South African warfare could only confirm and increase it. A single master hand had in an instant turned England's night to day, and had brought us out of that nightmare of miscalculation and disaster which had weighed so long upon our spirits. His was the master hand, but there were others at his side without whom that hand might have been paralysed: Kitchener the organiser, French the cavalry leader - to these two men, second only to their chief, are the results of the operations due. Henderson, the most capable head of Intelligence, and Richardson, who under all difficulties fed the army, may each claim his share in the success.