Escapes, by John Buchan

4

From Pretoria to the Sea

ON November 15, 1899, lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer Haldane, who in the Great War commanded the VI. Corps, was thirty-seven years of age and captain in the Gordon Highlanders. Mr. Winston Churchill, who was afterwards to hold most offices in the British Cabinet, was then twenty-five, and was acting as correspondent for the Morning Post on the Natal front. He had already seen service with his regiment, the 4th Hussars, on the Indian frontier, and in other capacities in Cuba and on the Nile. The South African War had just begun, and so far had gone badly for Britain. Sir George White was cut off in Ladysmith; but Sir Redvers Buller had landed in Natal, and it was believed that he would soon advance to an easy victory.

The South African War, as we all know, was entered upon light-heartedly and with very scanty fore-knowledge of the problems to be faced. Much of the British equipment was amateurish; but the palm for amateurishness must be given to the armoured train which plied its trade in the neighbourhood of Estcourt. It was not much better than a death-trap. It was made up of an engine, five wagons, and an ancient 7-pounder muzzle-loading gun. Its purpose was reconnaissance; but it was a very noisy and conspicuous scout, as it wheezed up and down the line, belching clouds of smoke and steam.

On the morning of 15th November it set out to reconnoitre towards Chieveley, carrying on board 120 men, made up of a small civilian break-down gang, part of a company of the Dublin Fusiliers, and a company of the Durban Light Infantry Volunteers. Captain Haldane was in command, and Mr. Churchill, in his capacity as a War Correspondent, went with him. When they reached Chieveley, Boer horsemen were observed, and the train was ordered back to Frere. But before it reached Frere it was discovered that a hill commanding the whole line at a distance of 600 yards was occupied by the enemy.

The driver put on full steam and tried to run the gauntlet; but a big stone had been placed on the line at the foot of a steep gradient, and into this the train crashed. The engine, which was in the centre of the train, was not derailed, and a gallant attempt was made to clear the wreckage of the foremost trucks and push through. For more than an hour, under heavy shell-fire from the enemy’s field guns, and a constant hail of rifle bullets, the crew of the train laboured to clear the obstruction. But the couplings of the trucks broke, and though the engine, laden with wounded, managed to continue its journey, the position of the rest of the crew was hopeless, and they were compelled to surrender. The Boers behaved with conspicuous humanity, and the little company of prisoners were soon jogging slowly northward towards Pretoria.

The capital of the then South African Republic was a little new town planned in orderly parallelograms lying in a cup among rocky hills. From it three railways radiated one to Pietersburg and the north, one to Johannesburg in the south-west, and one running eastward to Portuguese territory and the sea at Delagoa Bay. The British privates and non-commissioned officers were sent to a camp at the racecourse on the outskirts of the town, while the officers were taken to the Staats Model School, a building almost in the centre of Pretoria. At first Mr. Churchill was sent with the men, but he was presently brought back and added to the officers. He bore a name which was better known than liked in the Transvaal at the time, and his presence as a prisoner was a considerable Batisf action to his captors.

The Staats Model School was a single-storied red brick building with a slated veranda, and consisted of twelve class-rooms, a large lecture hall, and a gymnasium. The playground, in which it stood, was about 120 yards square, and in it there were tents for the guards, the cookhouse, and a bathing-shed. On two sides it was surrounded by an iron grill, and on the other two by a corrugated iron fence some 10 feet high. Before the prisoners from the armoured train arrived there were already sixty British officers there, captured in the early Natal fighting. For guard there were twenty-seven men and three corporals of the South African Republic Police (known locally as “ Zarps “). These furnished nine sentries in reliefs of four hours; they stood 50 yards apart, well armed with revolvers and rifles. In every street; of Pretoria, too, were posted special armed constables.

To be taken prisoner thus early, in what was believed to “be a triumphant war, was a bitter pill for British officers to swallow, and it was not easier for the restless, energetic spirit of Mr. Churchill. As soon as the captives arrived they began to make plans for escape. None of them were on parole, and at first sight it looked a comparatively easy task. It would not be hard to scale the flimsy outer defences of the Staats Model School, but the trouble lay in the guards. It was found impossible to bribe them, for, as Mr. Churchill has observed in his book, the presence of so many millionaires in the country had raised the tariff too high for any ordinary purse. Another difficulty was where to go to. It was no good attempting to reach Natal or Cape Colony, for that meant going through Boer armies. The best chance lay eastward in the direction of Portuguese territory, but that involved a journey of 300 miles through an unknown country. The one hope was the Delagoa Bay line, for where there is a railway there are always chances of transport for a bold man.

Captain Haldane’s mind turned to tunnelling, and he discovered in an old cupboard several screwdrivers and wire-cutters, which he managed to secrete, Mr. Churchill had a more audacious plan. He had observed that the sentries on the side of the quadrangle remote from the road were at certain times, as they walked on their beats, unable to see the top of a few yards of the boundary wall. There were brilliant electric lights in the middle of the quadrangle, but the sentries beyond them could not see very well what lay behind. If it were possible to pass the two sentries on that side at the exact moment when both their backs were turned together, the wall might be scaled and the garden of the villa next door reached. Beyond that it was impossible to plan. Mr. Churchill and a friend resolved to make the attempt and to trust to the standing luck of the British Army to get safely out of the town and cover the 280 miles to the Portuguese border. They had a fair amount of money, they would carry some chocolate with them, and they hoped to buy mealies at the native kraals. They knew no Kafir or Dutch, and would have to lie hidden by day and move only in the darkness.

The enterprise was fixed for the night of llth December, and was to be attempted at seven o’clock when the bell rang for dinner. The two spent a nervous afternoon; but when the bell rang it was seen that the thing was hopeless. The sentries did not walk about, and one stood opposite the one climbable part of the wall. “With a most unsatisfactory feeling of relief “ the two went to bed. The next evening came and again the dinner bell rang. Mr. Churchill walked across the quadrangle, and from a corner in one of the offices watched the sentries. After half an hour one suddenly turned and walked up to his comrade and began to talk. The chance had come. Mr. Churchill ran to the wall, pulled himself up, and lay flat on the top while the sentries with their backs turned were talking 15 yards away. Then he dropped into the shrubs of the garden.

It was a night of full moonlight, but there was fair cover in the bushes. The villa to which the garden belonged was 20 yards off, and the undrawn curtains revealed brightly lighted windows with figures moving about. Mr. Churchill had to wait for the arrival of his comrade, and as he waited a man came out of the back door of the villa and walked in Ms direction across the garden. Ten yards away he stopped and appeared to be watching, while the fugitive remained absolutely still with a thumping heart. Then another man joined the first, lit a cigar, and the two walked off together. Then a cat was pursued by a dog, rushed into the bushes, and collided with the fugitive. The two men stopped, but, reflecting that it was only the cat, passed out of the garden gate into the town.

Mr. Churchill had now been lying there an hour, when he heard a voice from inside the quadrangle say quite loud, “All up.” He crawled back to the wall and heard two officers walking up and down talking. One of them mentioned his name. He coughed; one of the officers thereupon began to chatter some kind of nonsense while the other said slowly, “He cannot ‘get out. The sentry suspects. It is all up. Can you get back again? “ But to go back was impossible, and though Mr. Churchill had very little hope he determined to have a run for his money. He said loudly and clearly, so that the others heard him, “ I shall go on alone.”

The first thing was to get out of Pretoria. He had managed during his confinement to acquire a suit of dark clothes, different from the ordinary garments issued to prisoners. To reach the road he must pass a sentry at short range, but he decided that the boldest course was the safest. He got up, walked past the windows of the villa, passed the sentry at less than 50 yards, and, after walking 100 yards and hearing no challenge, knew that he had surmounted the second obstacle.

It was a queer experience to be at large on a bright moonlight night in the heart of the enemy’s capital nearly 300 miles from friendly territory, and with a certainty that in an hour or two there would be a hue and cry out against him. He strolled at a leisurely pace down the middle of the streets, humming a tune, past crowds of burghers, till he reached the environs. There he sat down and reflected. His escape would probably not be known till dawn, and he must get, some way off before daybreak, for all the neighbouring country would be patrolled. He had 75 pounds in his pocket and four slabs of chocolate, but the compass, map, opium tablets, and meat lozenges were left behind with his unlucky friend. His only chance was the Delagoa Bay Railway. That line, of course, was guarded, and every train would be searched; but among a multitude of black alternatives it gave at least a ray of hope.

Half a mile later he struck the railroad, but he could not be sure whether it was the Ketersburg or the Delagoa Bay line, for it appeared to run north instead of east. He followed it, and soon began to realize the exhilaration of escape. Walking in the cool night under the stars his spirits rose. There were pickets along the line and watchers at every bridge, but he avoided them all by short detours. And as he walked he reflected that if he trusted to his feet to cover the 300 miles he would very soon be captured. He must make better speed, and the only chance for that was a train. Yes, a train must be boarded, and at the earliest opportunity.

When he had walked for two hours he perceived the lights of a station, so he left the track and hid in a ditch 200 yards beyond the buildings. He argued that any train would stop at the station and by the ^time it reached him would not have got up much speed. After another hour he heard a train whistle and saw the yellow headlights of the engine. It waited five minutes in the station, and then, with a great rumbling, started again. Mr. Churchill flung himself on the trucks, got some sort of handhold, and with a great struggle seated himself on the couplings. It was a goods train, and the trucks were full of empty sacks covered with coal dust, among which he burrowed. He had no notion whether or not he was on the right line, and he was too tired to worry, so he simply fell asleep. He woke before daybreak and realized that he must leave the train ere dawn. So he sat himself again on the couplings, and catching hold of the iron handle at the back of the truck, sprang to the side. The next moment he was sprawling in a ditch, much shaken but not hurt.

He found himself in the middle of a valley surrounded by low hills. Presently the dawn began to break, and to his relief he realized that he had taken the right railway. The line ran straight into the sunrise. He had a long drink from a pool, and resolved to select a hiding-place to lie up for the day. This he found in a patch of wood on the side of a deep ravine, where, in the company of a cynical vulture, he spent the daylight hours. From his eyrie he could see a little tin-roofed town in the west, through which he had passed in the night, and in the immediate neighbourhood farmsteads with clumps of trees. There was a Kafir kraal at the bottom of the hill, and he watched the natives drive the flocks of goats and cows to the pastures. His only food was one slab of chocolate, which produced a violent thirst; but, as the water pool was half a mile away in the open and men were constantly passing, he dare not risk going for a drink.

His prospects were pretty black when he started again at the first darkness. He had a drink from the pool, and then took to the railway line in hope of getting a second train ride. But no train came, and for six hours in the bright moonlight he walked on, avoiding the Kafirs’ huts and the guarded bridges, When he had to make a circuit he fell into bogs, and, as he was in a poor condition from the previous month’s imprisonment, he was very soon tired out.

Mr. Churchill published the story of his escape during the war, when it was important not to implicate any friends still in the Transvaal, and so the next part of his journey has never been explicitly told. It appears that he fell in with a Mr. Burnham and a Mr. Howard, officials of a colliery, who gave him valuable assistance, as they were afterwards to assist Captain Haldane. On the fifth day after leaving Pretoria he reached Middelburg, where it was arranged that he should try and board a Delagoa Bay train.

Meantime the hue and cry was out against him. Telegrams describing him at great length were sent along every railway; 3,000 photographs were printed, and warrants were issued for his immediate arrest. Officials of the prison who knew him by sight hurried off to Komati Poort, the frontier station, to examine travellers. It was rumoured that he had escaped disguised as a woman, and again disguised as a policeman; and finally it was reported that he was still in hiding in Pretoria. The Dutch newspapers considered it a sinister fact that just before he escaped he had become a subscriber to the State Library and had borrowed Mill’s On Liberty!

On the sixth day he found a train to Delagoa Bay standing in a siding, which he boarded. The journey should take not more than thirty-six hours, so the provisions carried were not elaborate, and he had only one bottle of water. He managed to ensconce himself in a truck laden with great sacks of some soft merchandise, and worm his way to the bottom. The heat was stifling, for it was midsummer in the Transvaal, and the floor of the truck was littered with coal dust, which did not add to its amenities.

These last days of the adventure were both anxious and uncomfortable. He scarcely dared to sleep for fear of snoring, and he was in terror that at Komati Poort, the frontier station of the Transvaal, the trucks would be searched. His anxiety there was prolonged, for the train was shunted for eighteen hours on to a siding. Indeed, his truck was actually searched, and the upper tarpaulin was removed, but the police were careless and did not search deep enough.

At length, two and a half days after he left Middelburg, and eight and a half days from Pretoria, the train crawled into Delagoa Bay. Mr. Churchill emerged from his hole in the last stages of dirt, hunger, and weariness. But all troubles were now past. He went first to the British consul, who thought he was a fireman from one of the ships in the harbour, and who welcomed him with enthusiasm when he learned his real name. Clothes were bought; he had a long wash, and at last a civilized meal. That very night, as it happened, a steamer was leaving for Durban, and in case any of the Boer agents at Delagoa Bay should attempt to recapture him, some dozen of the English residents, armed with revolvers, escorted him on board. A few days later Mr. Churchill was back again in Natal with the British Army.

We return to Captain Haldane and his friends, who had been meditating escape from the first day of their arrival at the Staats Model School. The difficulty was, of course, the guards, and Mr. Churchill’s exploit made the Boer Government redouble its vigilance. It was found impossible to bribe the sentries; a plan for a rising of the prisoners was soon given up; and the scheme of sinking a shaft and then tunnelling to an adjacent kitchen garden proved impracticable, since the diggers very soon struck water. For three miserable months Captain Haldane cogitated in vain, and the best he could do was to get hold of a tourist map of South Africa and study the country east of Pretoria in case some way of escape should present itself. Meantime an incident cheered the prisoners. A man accompanied by a St. Bernard dog took to walking outside the school and signalling by the Morse code with his stick. He was warned off by the guards, but he found another means of communication and sent messages from an adjacent house giving the news of the war.

In the middle of February 1900 there was a rumour that the officers were to be moved to a new building from which escape would be impossible. This gave Captain Haldane an idea. He resolved to go into hiding beneath the floor, so that the Boers should think he had escaped, and then, when the officers were moved and the building was left empty, to emerge and get out of the town. His companions in the attempt were Lieutenant Neil Le Mesurier of the Dublin Fusiliers and Sergeant–Major A. Brockie of the Imperial Light Horse. They collected a few necessary articles, opened the trap-door, and went to earth.

It was a horrible place in which they found themselves. The floor of the building was about 2 feet above the ground, and the space below was divided into five narrow compartments by four stone walls, on which the cross beams rested. Each of these compartments was about 18 feet long and 3J feet wide, and there were manholes between them. The air, what there was of it, came through a small ventilator somewhere on the veranda. The place was pitch dark, and the atmosphere was stuffy to the last degree.

The three thought that their imprisonment there would only last for twenty-four hours. They went to earth on 26th February, and next day there was a great to-do about their disappearance. Descriptions of them were circulated over the whole country. One of their friends above, Lieutenant Frankland of the Dublin Fusiliers, arranged a small daily supply of provisions. Alas 1 the twenty four hours passed and there was no move above. For nineteen days the three men remained in that horrible dungeon. Their only exercise was crawling about, in which they broke their heads constantly against beams and walls. They were covered with dirt, for very little water could be passed through the trap-door. Still they managed to endure. By the light of a dip they played games of patience and talked, and their chief anxiety was lest by snoring or talking in their sleep they should give their hiding-place away. Their friends above who were in the secret tried to persuade them to come up occasionally to get some fresh air, but they were determined to play the game according to its rigour, and refused.

But the situation was getting serious, for all three were falling ill. Captain Haldane wrote to a fellow-prisoner in the school above, a Dutch pastor called Adrian Hofmeyer, begging him to try and get the move expedited. Hofmeyer did his best with the authorities, telling them the story of a bogus rising of the prisoners; but still nothing happened. At last came the good news that the move was fixed for Friday, 16th March. The prisoners underground heard the commandant going his rounds for the last time. Then their friends gave the agreed signal, and Frankland’s voice said, “ Good-bye.” At a quarter-past ten the prisoners were heard leaving the school, and by midday the servants and baggage had left. The three stayed below till nightfall and then walked out of the empty building. Walking is, indeed, a misnomer, for they seemed to nave lost the use of their legs. They fell repeatedly and reeled like drunken men. It was not till they had got out of the town that they recovered the use of their limbs.

They had 300 miles of a difficult journey to make to safety, and surely never in the history of escapes have three men started out on a wilder enterprise in worse physical condition. Mr. Churchill had been out of training, but his physique at the time was that of an athlete’s compared to Captain Haldane and his compinions. Brockie, who had lived in the country and knew the language, got himself up like a wounded Boer, with his left arm in a sling and the Boer colours round his head. The trio presented the appearance of the worst kind of Irish moonlighters.

In the suburbs a special constable looked at them suspiciously, but was reassured by the sight of Brockie’ s wounded arm. They struck the Delagoa Bay Railway and stumbled along it, Le Mesurier having the bad luck to sprain his ankle. Their one advantage was that, having been supposed to escape three weeks before, the immediate hue and cry after them had died down.

Their first halting-place was near a station on the line, 13 miles east of Pretoria. There they lay up, suffering much from mosquitoes, and when darkness came made for the highroad running east. The Transvaal highways at that time were not like those of to-day, but simply raw red scars running across the veld, by no means easy to follow in the darkness. On this second night of their travels they were hunted by dogs, and Haldane and Le Mesurier took refuge in a stream, cowering up to their necks. Here they lost Brockie, but fortunately he was the one of the three best able to fend for himself, as he knew the country and could speak both Dutch and Kafir. The two, soaked to the skin, spent the rest of the night in a clump of bracken, after taking a dose of quinine and opium. At daybreak they found themselves stiff with rheumatism. They had finished their whisky, and the provisions, matches, and tobacco were soaked.

At dawn, in a tremendous thunderstorm, they made for the railway again, and there Haldane, to his consternation, discovered that he had left his money and belt in the last hiding-place. He dared not return for them, even if he had had any hope of finding the place again. So there were the two men, without food or money, weary, cramped, and sick, with the better part of 300 miles before them in an enemy country,

Food must be found, and that night they came on a Kafir kraal with a field of water melons. They made a meal off the melons and stumbled on again. The next night their physical condition began to be really serious. In four nights they had only covered 36 miles, and their food was reduced to one tin of pemmican, one tin of cocoa, and a scrap of biltong. They had hoped for mealies from the fields, but the mealie harvest had just been gathered and not a cob remained. Another misfortune was the condition of the veld grass. They had expected it to be long enough to hide in, but it was far too short for shelter, and they were therefore compelled to lie up by day in wet swamps.

That night, having finished every scrap of food, they blundered into a Kafir hut beside a coal siding, where some natives were eating mealie-meal porridge. Their only course was to reveal themselves, for the Kafirs were in the main on the British side. They learned that the natives’ master, the manager of the coal mine, was a Dane, and to him they disclosed their identity. The manager was friendly. He said his own mine was sending no coals to the coast for the moment, but that at a colliery next door three trucks were being loaded up for Delagoa Bay next morning. He handed his visitors over to the storekeeper of the mine, Mr. Moore, who gave them a dry bed and a good meal.

Next morning they heard that the mine doctor, a Scotsman called Gillespie, was coming to see them, and in him they found a stout ally, for he knew all about their escape and had been looking for their arrival in order to help them. He was one of the people who had already assisted Mr. Churchill. That evening he undertook to drive them to another mine, where a plan of escape could be matured.

In the early darkness they drove 14 miles over the veld to the colliery of the Transvaal Delagoa Bay Company. There they were handed over to Mr. J. E. Howard, who had been the chief agent in Mr. Churchill’s escape. There, too, they were introduced to Mr. Addams, the secretary of the mine, who turned out to be no other than the Englishman with the St. Bernard dog who had been accustomed to walk past the Staats Model School. He and the manager of the mine store, Mr. Burnham, at once set about planning their escape. It was arranged that Mr. Howard should feign illness for a few days and remain indoors, and that Haldane and Le Mesurier should take up their quarters with him. To their relief they also got news of Brockie, for he had turned up a little earlier at the same place and had been given a passport to the border.

The plan arranged was as follows: Wool was still being sent down from the high, veld to Delagoa Bay, and the trucks for it were usually detached at Middelburg. It was arranged that Burnham should buy a truck-load of wool and wire to a firm at Delagoa Bay offering the consignment. This was done, wires were exchanged, and sixteen bales of wool were duly collected and consigned to the coast. The truck for the wool was brought up the line and carefully loaded. The bales, each of which weighed 400 lb., were so arranged that there was a kind of tunnel at the bottom down the centre, in which the fugitives could hide. From behind the blinds in the sickroom of Mr. Howard, Haldane and Le Mesurier watched with acute interest the last stages of these preparations.

At 5 a.m. one morning they climbed into the tunnel below the wool, where their friends had provided them with ample provisions for a week in the shape of roast duck and chicken, beef and bread, butter and jam, nine bottles of cold tea, two of water, and one of whisky. The tarpaulin was made fast over the top, and for five hours the two waited. At ten o’clock that morning Mr. Howard came along and took a final farewell. A certain Field–Cornet Pretorius had arrived that morning and had shown himself very suspicious about the tablecloth in Mr. Howard’s dining-room, but the manager had explained it with the story of a dinner and card party. By midday the truck was taken by a colliery engine to Whitbank station. Mr. Addams and Mr. Burnham were on the lookout there, and to their horror saw the Dutch driver and stoker stroll up and lean against the truck. They endeavoured to draw them away by offers of drinks; but the driver would not move, and taking a paper from his pocket began to conduct his correspondence against the side of the truck. A sneeze or a word from inside would have given away the whole plan. Even when the man left the danger was not over, for while the truck was being shunted, one of the station officials actually undid the tarpaulin and looked in, but saw nothing.

At 2.30 p.m. they were attached to a passenger train, and for the rest of the day jogged across the high veld, till at Waterval Boven, where the descent to the low veld begins, th train drew up for the night. They started again next morning, and presently they reached the last Transvaal station, Komati Poort, where a bridge spans the Komati river. This was the place where a search was likely, and to the intense disappointment of the fugitives they found the truck detached and pushed into a siding. Discovery seemed now certain; and Haldane decided to try and bribe the first comer. He got a bag of a hundred sovereigns ready, and destroyed any compromising matter in his diary.

As it happened, the Pretoria Government had wired to Komati Poort to order the strictest search of all goods trucks. The stowaways heard the unloosening of the ropes of their tarpaulin, and down in their tunnel realized it had been lifted up and thrown back. They saw daylight flood in at the tunnel end, and believed that any moment the face of a station official would look down on them. Then to their amazement the tarpaulin was returned to its place. They may not have been seen; or a Kafir may have caught a glimpse of them, and, having no desire to aid the law, said nothing.

But though the tarpaulin was drawn again, their suspense was not over. All that day and all the following night they lay there, anxious, half stifled, and now very hungry, for they had thrown away most of their provisions, believing that they would not be needed. Saturday morning came, and they realized that they had hoped the day before to be inside the Portuguese border. At last, at 9 a.m., the train steamed off, and while crossing the Komati bridge the two men shook hands. They saw the white pillar which marked the boundary, and realized that they had won freedom.

The train stopped at the first Portuguese station; but the two stowaways did not dare to alight. They waited till the evening and then crept out in the dusk. At a Kafir kraal close by they learned that the hotel there was kept by two Englishmen, and thither they stumbled. In five minutes they were in a back room being regaled with champagne by their excited compatriots.

Brockie had also escaped, but all three paid for some time the penalty of their wild adventure with malaria, and in the case of Le Mesurier with enteric. In a few weeks, however, they were back on duty at the front. Captain Haldane, as we have seen, was to rise to be one of the most successful British generals in the Great War. Brockie was killed by a mining accident a few years after the escape. Le Mesurier fell at the Second Battle of Ypres, and Frankland, who had assisted them to escape, died in a reconnaissance at the Dardanelles.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32