L. MARCH PHILLIPPS
LATE CAPTAIN IN RIMINGTON'S GUIDES
37 BEDFORD STREET, STRAND, W.C.
All rights reserved
This book is dedicated to the memory of my friend Lieutenant Gustavus Coulson, D.S.O., of the King's Own Scottish Borderers, who fell at Lambrechtfontein on May 19, 1901.
The Colonel in command writes that in that action Lieutenant Coulson rallied some men and saved a gun from falling into the enemy's hands. He lost his life in bringing off a wounded man from under the enemy's fire. For this deed, the last of many deeds as brave, he was recommended for the Victoria Cross.
I knew him from his childhood, and on the march from Lindley to Pretoria, and thence far south to Basutoland, we often rode together, and talked of West Country sport and his Devonshire home and faces that we both knew and loved there.
A keen soldier, a cheery comrade, and a brave and kindly English gentleman, he stands, it seems to me, the very type of those gallant boys who in this South African war have died for England.
These letters were written without any idea of publication, and it was not until I had been home some months that suggestions from one or two sources caused me to think of printing them. They appear much as they were written, except that sometimes several letters dealing with the same event have been thrown into one; and occasionally a few words have been added to fill up gaps. In no case have I been wise after the event, or put in prophecies which had already come off.
The parts in inverted commas are extracts from note-books which I used to carry about in my pocket, and these passages I have left just as they were jotted down, thinking that such snap-shots of passing scenes might have an interest of their own.
It is unlucky from a descriptive point of view that the big actions and fine effects should all have occurred during the first part of the war, leaving the dulness and monotony for the later stages. During the last six months of my service it was not my chance to see any important action, though slight skirmishing was constant, and I find therefore nothing in the later letters of a very exciting nature.
Such as they are, however, these letters contain a quite faithful account of things that happened under my own eyes throughout the chief stages of the western campaign. During the early part of the war many things happened that were splendid to see and that it gave me great pleasure to write about. During the later stages nothing particularly splendid occurred, though the patience and endurance of our men were in their way fine; but some things happened which were, as we say, regrettable; and these things also are in their turn briefly described.
15 BURY STREET, ST. JAMES'S, S.W.
I. ORANGE RIVER CAMP 1
II. BELMONT 8
III. GRASPAN 15
IV. MODDER RIVER 22
V. THE 4.7 30
VI. MAGERSFONTEIN 34
VII. A RECONNAISSANCE 43
VIII. SCOUTING ON THE MODDER 49
IX. THE ADVANCE 59
X. RELIEF OF KIMBERLEY 63
XI. PAARDEBERG—THE BOMBARDMENT 73
XII. PAARDEBERG—THE SURRENDER 77
XIII. POPLAR GROVE 83
XIV. BLOEMFONTEIN 89
XV. MODDER REVISITED 97
XVI. JUSTIFICATION OF THE WAR 104
XVII. THE MARCH NORTH 112
XVIII. PRETORIA 126
XIX. THE MARCH SOUTH 139
XX. PRINSLOO'S SURRENDER—I 151
XXI. PRINSLOO'S SURRENDER—II 165
XXII. FIGHTING AND TREKKING 173
XXIII. WRITTEN FROM HOSPITAL 185
XXIV. FIGHTING AND FARM-BURNING 192
XXV. THE SITUATION 205
XXVI. PLAIN MISTER! 217
ORANGE RIVER CAMP
ORANGE RIVER, November 18, 1899.
The sun is just rising on Orange River Camp. Our tents are pitched on the slopes of white sand, soft and deep, into which you sink at every step, that stretch down to the river, dotted with a few scraggy thorn-trees. There are men round me, sleeping about on the sand, rolled in their dark brown blankets, like corpses laid out, covered from head to foot, with the tight folds drawn over their feet and over their heads. A few bestir themselves, roll, and stretch, and draw back the covering from their sleepy, dusty faces. The first sunbeams begin to creep along the ground and turn the cold sand yellow.
I am beginning this letter in the shade of a mimosa. The whole scene reminds me very much of Egypt; and you might easily believe that you were sitting on the banks of the Nile somewhere between the first and second cataract. There are the same white, sandy banks, the same narrow fringe of verdure on each side, the same bareness and treelessness of the surrounding landscape, the same sun-scorched, stony hillocks; in fact, the whole look of the place is almost identical. The river, slow and muddy, is a smaller Nile; there only wants the long snout and heavy, slug-like form of an old crocodile on the spit of sand in the middle to make the likeness complete. And over all the big arch of the pure sky is just the same too.
Our camp grows larger and rapidly accumulates, like water behind a dam, as reinforcements muster for the attack. Methuen commands. We must be about 8000 strong now, and are expecting almost hourly the order to advance. Below us De Aar hums like a hive. From a deserted little wayside junction, such as I knew it first, it has blossomed suddenly into a huge depot of all kinds of stores, provisions, fodder, ammunition, and all sorts of material for an important campaign. Trains keep steaming up with more supplies or trucks crowded with khaki-clad soldiers, or guns, khaki painted too, and the huge artillery horses that the Colonials admire so prodigiously. Life is at high pressure. Men talk sharp and quick, and come to the point at once. Foreheads are knit and lips set with attention. Every one you see walks fast, or, if riding, canters. There is no noise or confusion, but all is strenuous, rapid preparation.
Do you know Colonials? In my eight months of mining life at Johannesburg I got to know them well. England has not got the type. The Western States of America have it. They are men brought up free of caste and free of class. When you come among Colonials, forget your birth and breeding, your ancestral acres and big income, and all those things which carry such weight in England. No forelocks are pulled for them here; they count for nothing. Are you wide-awake, sharp, and shrewd, plucky; can you lead? Then go up higher. Are you less of these things? Then go down lower. But always among these men it is a position simply of what you are in yourself. Man to man they judge you there as you stand in your boots; nor is it very difficult, officer or trooper, or whatever you are, to read in their blunt manners what their judgment is. It is lucky for our corps that it has in its leader a man after its own heart; a man who, though an Imperial officer, cares very little for discipline or etiquette for their own sakes; who does not automatically assert the authority of his office, but talks face to face with his men, and asserts rather the authority of his own will and force of character. They are much more ready to knock under to the man than they would be to the mere officer. In his case they feel that the leader by office and the leader by nature are united, and that is just what they want.
There are Colonials out here, as one has already come to see, of two tolerably distinct types. These you may roughly distinguish as the money-making Colonials and the working Colonials. The money-making lot flourish to some extent in Kimberley, but most of all in Johannesburg. You are soon able to recognise his points and identify him at a distance. He is a little too neatly dressed and his watch-chain is a little too much of a certainty. His manner is excessively glib and fluent, yet he has a trick of furtively glancing round while he talks, as if fearful of being overheard. For the same reason he speaks in low tones. He must often be discussing indifferent topics, but he always looks as if he were hatching a swindle. There is also a curious look of waxworks about his over-washed hands.
This is the type that you would probably notice most. The Stock Exchange of Johannesburg is their hatching-place and hot-bed; but from there they overflow freely among the seaside towns, and are usually to be found in the big hotels and the places you would be most likely to go to. Cape Town at the present moment is flooded with them. But these are only the mere froth of the South African Colonial breed. The real mass and body of them consists (besides tradesmen, &c., of towns) of the miners of the Rand, and, more intrinsically still, of the working men and the farmers of English breed all over the Colony. It is from these that the fighting men in this quarrel are drawn. It is from these that our corps, for instance, has been by the Major individually and carefully recruited; and I don't think you could wish for better material, or that a body of keener, more loyal, and more efficient men could easily be brought together.
Many of them are veterans, and have taken part in some of the numerous African campaigns—Zulu, Basuto, Kaffir, Boer, or Matabele. They are darkly sunburnt; lean and wiry in figure; tall often, but never fat (you never see a fat Colonial), and they have the loose, careless seat on horseback, as if they were perfectly at home there. As scouts they have this advantage, that they not only know the country and the Dutch and Kaffir languages, but that they are accustomed, in the rough and varied colonial life, to looking after themselves and thinking for themselves, and trusting no one else to do it for them. You can see this self-reliance of theirs in their manner, in their gait and swagger and the way they walk, in the easy lift and fall of the carbines on their hips, the way they hold their heads and speak and look straight at you.
Your first march with such a band is an episode that impresses itself. We were called up a few days ago at dead of night from De Aar to relieve an outlying picket reported hard pressed. In great haste we saddled by moonlight, and in a long line went winding away past the artillery lines and the white, ghostly tents of the Yorkshires. The hills in the still, sparkling moonlight looked as if chiselled out of iron, and the veldt lay spread out all white and misty; but what one thought most of was the presence of these dark-faced, slouch-hatted irregulars, sitting free and easy in their saddles, with the light gleaming dully on revolver and carbine barrel. A fine thing is your first ride with a troop of fighting men.
Though called guides we are more properly scouts. Our strength is about a hundred and fifty. A ledger is kept, in which, opposite each man's name, is posted the part of the country familiar to him and through which he is competent to act as guide. These men are often detached, and most regiments seem to have one or two of ours with them. Sometimes a party is detached altogether and acts with another column, and there are always two or three with the staff. Besides acting as guides they are interpreters, and handy men generally. All these little subtractions reduce our main body to about a hundred, or a little less; and this main body, under Rimington himself, acts as scouts and ordinary fighting men. In fact, a true description of us would be "a corps of scouts supplying guides to the army."
One word about the country and I have done. What strikes one about all South African scenery, north and south, is the simplicity of it; so very few forms are employed, and they are employed over and over again. The constant recurrence of these few grave and simple features gives to the country a singularly childish look. Egyptian art, with its mechanical repetitions, unchanged and unvaried, has just the same character. Both are intensely pre-Raphaelite.
South Africa's only idea of a hill, for instance, is the pyramid. There are about three different kinds of pyramid, and these are reproduced again and again, as if they were kept all ready made in a box like toys. There is the simple kopje or cone, not to be distinguished at a little distance from the constructed pyramids of Egypt, just as regular and perfect. Then there is the truncated or flat-topped pyramid, used for making ranges; and finally the hollow-sided one, a very pretty and graceful variety, with curving sides drooping to the plain. These are all. Of course there are a few mistakes. Some of the hills are rather shakily turned out, and now and then a kopje has fallen away, as it were, in the making. But still the central idea, the type they all try for, is always perfectly clear. Moreover, they all are, or are meant to be, of exactly the same height.
Most strange and weird is this extraordinary regularity. It seems to mean something, to be arranged on some plan and for some humanly intelligible purpose. In the evenings and early mornings especially, when these oft-repeated shapes stand solemnly round the horizon, cut hard and blue against the sky like the mighty pylons and propylons of Egyptian temples, the architectural character of the scenery and its definite meaning and purpose strike one most inevitably. So solemn and sad it looks; the endless plains bare and vacant, and the groups of pure cut battlements and towers. As if some colossals here inhabited at one time and built these remains among which we now creep ignorant of their true character. The scenery really needs such a race of Titans to match it. In these spaces we little fellows are lost.
Well, farewell. My next will be after some sort of a contest. There has been a touch or two; enough to show they are waiting for us. A corporal of ours was shot through the arm yesterday and struggled back to camp on another man's horse. The dark-soaked sleeve (war's colour for the first time of seeing!) was the object, you may guess, of particular attention.
It is to be called Belmont, I believe, from the little siding on the railway near which it was fought. On the other hand it may be called after the farm which it was fought on. Who decides these things? I have never had dealings with a battle in its callow and unbaptized days before, and it had never occurred to me that they did not come into the world ready christened. Will Methuen decide the point, or the war correspondents, or will they hold a cabinet council about it? Anyhow Belmont will do for the present.
What happened was the simplest thing in the world. The Boers took up their position in some kopjes in our line of march. The British infantry, without bothering to wait till the hills had been shelled, walked up and kicked the Boers out. There was no attempt at any plan or scheme of action at all; no beastly strategy, or tactics, or outlandish tricks of any sort; nothing but an honest, straightforward British march up to a row of waiting rifles. Our loss was about 250 killed and wounded. The Boer loss, though the extent of it is unknown, was probably comparatively slight, as they got away before our infantry came fairly into touch with them. The action is described as a victory, and so, in a sense, it is; but it is not the sort of victory we should like to have every day of the week. We carried the position, but they hit us hardest. On the whole, probably both sides are fairly satisfied, which must be rare in battles and is very gratifying.
Our mounted men, Guides, 9th Lancers, and a few Mounted Infantry, marched out an hour before dawn. A line of kopjes stood up before us, rising out of the bare plain like islands out of the sea, and as we rounded the point and opened up the inner semicircle of hills, we could distinguish the white waggon tops of the Boer laager in a deep niche in the hillside, and see the men collecting and mounting and galloping about. By-and-by, as we advanced, there came a singing noise, and suddenly a great pillar of red dust shot up out of the ground a little to our left. "That's a most extraordinary thing," thinks I, deeply interested, "what land whale of these plains blows sand up in that fashion?" Then I saw several heads turned in that direction, and heard some one say something about a shell, and finally I succeeded in grasping, not without a thrill, the meaning of the phenomenon.
The infantry attack came off on the opposite side of the ridge from where we were, and we could see nothing of it. But we heard. As we drew alongside of the hills, suddenly there broke out a low, quickly uttered sound; dull reports so rapid as to make a rippling noise. The day was beautifully fine, still, and hot. There was no smoke or movement of any kind along the rocky hill crest, and yet the whole place was throbbing with Mausers. This was the first time that any of us had listened to modern rifle fire. It was delivered at our infantry, who on that side were closing with their enemy.
The fire did not last long, though in the short time it did terrible damage, and men of the Northumberlands and Grenadiers and Coldstreams were dropping fast as they clambered up the rocky hillside. But that brief burst of firing was the battle of Belmont. In that little space of time the position had been lost and won, and we had paid our price for it. During the march across the flat, as I have been told since, our loss was comparatively light; but when the climbing of the hill began, numbers of Boers who had been waiting ready poured in their fire. All along the ridge, from behind every rock and stone, the smokeless Mausers cracked (it was then the fire rose to that rippling noise we were listening to on the other side of the range), and the sleet of bullets, slanting down the hill, swept our fellows down by scores. But there was never any faltering. They had been told to take the hill. Two hundred and fifty stopped on the way through no fault of theirs. The rest went on and took it. That's the way our British infantry put a job through.
Soon, on our side, scattered bands of the enemy began to emerge from the kopjes and gallop north, whilst right up at the top of the valley their long convoy of waggons came into view, trekking away as hard as they could go, partly obscured by clouds of dust. We made some attempts to stop them, but our numbers were too few. Though defeated, they were not in any way demoralised, and the cool way in which they turned to meet us showed that they knew they were safe from the infantry, and did not fear our very weak cavalry. We did not venture to press the matter beyond long shots. Had we done so, it was evident we should have been cut up.
Various little incidents occurred. This one amused me at the moment. We had captured a herd of cattle from some niggers who had been sent by the Boers to drive them in, and I was conveying them to the rear. From a group of staff officers a boy came across the veldt to me, and presently I heard, as I was "shooing" on my bullocks, a very dejected voice exclaim, "How confoundedly disappointing." I looked round and saw a lad gazing ruefully at me, with a new revolver tied to a bright yellow lanyard ready in his hand. "I thought you were a Boer," he said, "and I was going to shoot you. I've got leave to shoot you," he added, as though he were in two minds about doing the job anyway. I looked at him for a long while in silence, there seemed nothing to say, and then, still ruefully, he rode away. This, you will understand, was right up our end of the valley, and I was driving cattle on to our ground, only I had a soft hat on.
We have plenty of youngsters like this; brave, no doubt, but thoughtless and quite careless about the dangerous qualities of the men they have to meet. "They'll live and learn," people say. They'll learn if they live, would perhaps be nearer the mark. The Boers, on the other hand, such as I have seen yet, are decidedly awkward-looking customers, crafty, but in deadly earnest, versed in veldt wars and knowing the country to an anthill. Looking from one to the other, I fear there are many mothers in England who'll go crying for their boys this campaign.
Later a troop of us penetrated into the deep recess among the hills where they had their laager. It seemed evident, from the number of waggons and the amount of clothing and stores left behind and littered in every direction, that the Boers had not expected to be shifted nearly so suddenly as they were. There were heaps of provisions, quantities of coffee tied up in small bags, sugar, rice, biltong, i.e. dried strips of flesh, a sort of bread biscuit much used by them on the march, and made at the farms, and other things. All were done up in small quantities in such a way that individual men could carry it. There were waggons loaded, or half loaded, with old chests and boxes, and many heaped about the ground. Most contained clothes, and the place was strewn in all directions with blankets, greatcoats, and garments of all sorts, colours, and sizes. I annexed a very excellent black mackintosh, quite new and splendidly lined with red; a very martial and imposing garment.
Diligent search was made for any paper or memoranda, which might show the plans or strength of the enemy, but all we found were the love-letters of the young Boers, of which there were vast numbers, extremely amusing. It never seems to have occurred to any of the writers that they could be going to get the worst of it. They seem to put the responsibility for the management of the whole campaign into the hands of the Deity. They are religious but practical. "God will protect us. Here is a pound of coffee," is about what they all come to. It is the fashion to scoff at the calm way in which our enemies have appropriated the services of the Almighty, but all the same it shows a dangerous temper. People who believe they have formed this alliance have always been difficult to beat. You remember Macaulay's Puritan, with his "Bible in one hand and a two-edged sword in the other." The sword has given place to a Mauser now, but I am not sure that we are likely to benefit much by the change. As to the Bible, it is still very much in evidence. Not a single kit but contained one; usually the family one in old brown leather. Now it is an historical fact that Bible-reading adversaries are very awkward customers to tackle, and remembering that, I dislike these Bibles.
More practically important than love-letters and Bibles, we found also a lot of abandoned ammunition, shell and Mauser. Our ambulance parties were at work in the hills. Several Boers, as they fled, had been shot down near the laager. We found one, shot through the thigh, groaning very much, and carried him into the shade of a waggon, and did what we could for him. Meantime some of us had gathered bits of boxes and wood, and made a fire and boiled water. Tea-cups, coffee, sugar, and biscuits were found, and we made a splendid feast in the midst of the desolation. Horrid, you will say, to think of food among the dead and wounded. And yet that coffee certainly was very good. Somehow I believe the Boers understand roasting it better than we do.
Before going we collected all the ammunition and heaped it together and made a pile of wood round it which we set ablaze and then drew out into the plain and reined in and looked back. Never shall I forget the view. The hills, those hills the English infantry had carried so splendidly, were between us and the now setting sun, and though so close were almost black with clean-hacked edges against the sunset side of the sky. To eastward the endless grassy sea went whitening to the horizon, crossed in the distance with the horizontal lines of rich brown and yellow and pure blue, which at sunrise and sunset give such marvellous colouring to the veldt. The air here is exactly like the desert air, very exhilarating to breathe and giving to everything it touches that wonderful clearness and refinement which people who have been brought up in a damp climate and among smudged outlines so often mistake for hardness. Our great ammunition fire in the hollow of the hill burned merrily, and by-and-by a furious splutter of Mauser cartridges began, with every now and then the louder report of shells and great smoke balls hanging in the air. But sheer above all, above yellow veldt and ruined Boer laager, rose the hill, the position we had carried, grim and rigid against the sunset and all black. And, with the sudden sense of seeing that comes to one now and then, I stared at it for a while and said out loud "Belmont!" And in that aspect it remains photographed in my memory.
November 26, 1899.
We marched out from our Orange River Camp on November 22nd, and fought at Belmont on the 23rd. On the 24th we marched north again, and on the 25th (yesterday) fought another action at Graspan, or, as some call it, Enslin—there is still the difficulty about names. March a day and fight a day seems the rule so far.
At home, when you are criticising these actions of Methuen, you must always bear two facts in mind. First, we are bound to keep our line of communication, that is, the railway, open, and hold it as we advance. We can bring Kimberley no relief unless we can open and guard the railway, and so enable supplies to be poured into the town. Second, we are not strong enough, and above all not mobile enough, while holding the railway to attempt a wide flanking movement which might threaten the Boer retreat, or enable us to shell and attack from two sides at once. If we had anything like a decent force of mounted men I suppose we could do it, but with our handful to separate it from the main body would be to get it cut off. "Want of frigates" was to be found on Nelson's heart, as he said on some occasion, and I am sure by this time that "want of cavalry" must be written on poor Methuen's. So you must figure to yourself a small army, an army almost all infantry, and an army tied to the railway on this march; and if we bring off no brilliant strategy, but simply plod on and take hard knocks, well, what else, I ask, under the circumstances can we do?
Yesterday in the early morning we found ourselves emerging from some stony hills with a great plain before us about four miles wide, I should think, with an ugly-looking range of hills bounding it on the north and the railway running north and south on our left. This we had every reason to believe was the enemy's position; toll-gate No. 2 on the Kimberley road. We went on to reconnoitre. Rimington led us straight towards the hills in open order, and when we were somewhere about rifle range from them, we right turned and galloped in line along their front; but no gun or rifle spoke. When we reached the eastern point of the range, we turned it and rode on with the hills on our left; and now, with the Lancers a little farther out on our right, we offered too good a shot for the enemy to resist. They opened on us with, as I thought three, but others think two, guns, and put in some quick and well-directed shots, of which the first one or two fell short and the rest went screaming over our heads and fell among the Lancers.
One point of difference, I notice, so far as a short experience goes, between cavalry and infantry, which is all in favour of the cavalry; and that is, that when they get into fire the infantry go calmly on, while the much wiser cavalry generally run away. We retired from these guns, but when opposite the corner of the range the Lancers got on to some bad ground in front of us, and we had to halt a minute, which gave the Boer Long Tom an excellent chance of a few parting words with us. The first shell came along, making the mad noise they do, whooping and screaming to itself, and plunged into the ground with a loud snort only about thirty or forty yards off. The gunner, having got his range, was not long in sending down another, and when the white curl of smoke appeared lying again on the hillside, one guessed that the individual now on his way would prove a warmish customer. It burst with a most almighty crack, and I involuntarily bent down my head over my horse's neck. "Right over your head," shouted the next man, in answer to my question as to where it burst.
If you are at all interested in "projectiles," you may care to hear that shrapnel is most effective when it bursts over, but a little short of, the object aimed at; the bullets, released by the bursting charge, continuing the line of flight of the shell, which is a downward slant. There is a rather anxious interval, of about ten or fifteen seconds generally after you see the smoke of the gun, and before anything else happens. Then comes the hollow boom of the report, and almost immediately afterwards the noise of the shell, growing rapidly from a whimper to a loud scream, with a sudden note of recognition at the end, as if it had caught sight of and were pouncing on you. It is a curious fact, however, that, in spite of the noise they make, you cannot in the least distinguish in which direction they are coming. You find yourself looking vaguely round, wondering where this yelling devil is going to ground, but till you see the great spurt of earth you have no idea where it will be. We came back across the plain, having more or less located the position and the guns. Rimington with one squadron got into a tight place among some kopjes on our right. The rifle fire was very hot, and at close range. The Major took up his orderly, whose horse was shot, on his own pony, and brought him off. For a moment the squadron came under cover of a hill, but they had to run the gauntlet of the Boer fire to get away. Rimington laughingly asked for a start as his pony was carrying double, and rode first out into the storm of bullets. Several men and horses were hit, but no men killed, and they were lucky in getting off as cheap as they did. We then drew back to a cattle kraal on the slope overlooking the plain, from which we watched the development of the infantry attack.
I usually carry a note-book and pencil in my pocket, partly to jot down any information one may pick up at farms from Kaffirs, &c., and partly to make notes in of the things I see. Here is a note from the kraal.
"10 A.M.—There is a wide plain in front of me, four miles across, flat as the sea, and all along the farther side a line of kopjes and hills rising like reefs and detached islands out of it. You might think the plain was empty at first glance, but, if you look hard, you will see it crawling with little khaki-clad figures, dotted all over it; not packed anywhere, but sprinkled over the whole surface. They are steadily but very leisurely converging on the largest end hill of the opposite range. Meantime, from three or four spots along the sides of those hills, locks and puffs of white smoke float out, followed at long intervals by deep, sonorous reports; and if you look to the left a bit, where our naval guns are at work, you will see the Boer shells bursting close to or over them. The artillery duet goes on between the two, while still the infantry, unmolested as yet, crawls and crawls towards those hills."
This is our first sight of an infantry attack, and it doesn't impress me at first at all. Its cold-bloodedness, the absence of all excitement, make it so different from one's usual notions of a battle. It is really difficult to believe that those little, sauntering figures are "delivering an attack." They don't look a bit as if they were going to fight. The fact is, they have a long distance to cover before reaching the hills, and must go fairly slow. Accordingly, you see them strolling leisurely along as if nothing particular were happening; while the hills themselves, except for the occasional puffs of smoke, look; quite bare and empty; ridges of stone and rock, interspersed with grass tussocks, heaped up against the hot, blue sky.
But now, as they advance farther across the plain, the muffled, significant sound of the Mauser fire begins. The front of the attack is already so far across that it is impossible to see how they are faring from here; but it is evident that our shell fire, heavy though it has been, for all our guns have been in action some time now, has not turned the Boers out of their position. The big chunks of rock are an excellent defence against shrapnel, and behind them they lie, or down in the hollow of the hills, as we saw them earlier in the day, to be called up when the attack approached; and now, gathering along the crest, their fire quickens gradually from single shots to a roar. But it has no effect on that fatal sauntering! Of the men who leave this side nigh on two hundred will drop before they reach the other, but still, neither hurrying nor pausing, on they quietly stroll, giving one, in their uniform motion over that wide plain, a sense as of the force and implacability of some tidal movement. And, as you watch, the significance of it all grows on you, and you see that it is just its very cold-bloodedness and the absence of any dash and fury that makes the modern infantry attack such a supreme test of courage.
Of the details of the attack, when it came to the last charge, we could see nothing. The Naval Brigade, who had the hardest part of the position to take, lost terribly, but did the job in a way that every one says was perfectly splendid. It is said, however, that they made the mistake, in the scaling of the hill, of closing together, and so offering a more compact mass to the enemy's fire. We came on behind the infantry with our friends the Lancers, and passed through a gap in the range and on across some open ground and through a few more kopjes as fast as we could go. Then we came in sight of the enemy, and the same thing happened as at Belmont. A lot of horsemen, enough to have eaten us up, that were hanging about the rear of the Boer column, came wheeling out against us, and as we continued to approach, opened fire. Luckily there was good cover for our ponies behind some hillocks, and, leaving them there, we crawled out among the rocks and blazed at the Boers. But this was all we could do. We daren't attack. The only hope was guns, and it was a long and inexplicable time before any guns came up. By that time the Boer column was almost across the plain, winding its way in among the kopjes on the farther side, but the 15-pounders made some very pretty practice at the rear-guard, and considerably hastened their movements. The Boer retreat seems to have been conducted with much coolness and method. They ceased firing their big guns while the attack was still a good way distant, and limbered up and sent them on, the riflemen remaining till the attack was close upon them, and firing their last shots right in our infantry's faces, then rushing down to their horses and mounting and galloping off. No doubt, they exposed themselves a bit in doing this, but pumped and excited men can't be expected to shoot very straight, and I'm afraid their losses were light compared to ours. They have now retired, we presume, to the next range of kopjes, there to smoke their pipes and read their Bibles and await our coming. I suppose we shall be along to-morrow or next day.
MODDER RIVER CAMP,
December 1, 1899.
We had a great old fight here two days ago, and suffered another crushing victory; but though I saw it all, I daresay you know more about the whole thing by this time than I do.
This is Modder River, deep and still, just beneath my feet. It is a lovely, cloudless morning, and going to be a very hot day. I am writing my letter on the banks of the river in the shade of green trees and shrubs, with birds singing and twittering, and building their nests round me; it is spring-time here, you know, or early summer. Here and there, sauntering or sitting, are groups of our khaki soldiers enjoying mightily a good rest after the hard work, marching and fighting, of the last ten days. From the river-bed come voices calling and talking, sounds of laughing, and now and then a plunge. Heads bob about and splash in the mud-coloured water, and white figures run down the bank and stand a moment, poised for a plunge. Three stiff fights in seven days doesn't seem to have taken much of the spring out of them.
You would scarcely think it was the scene of a battle, and yet there are a few signs. If you look along the trees and bushes, you see here and there a bough splintered or a whole trunk shattered, as though it had been struck by lightning. A little lower down the river there is a shed of corrugated iron, which looks as if some one had been trying to turn it into a pepper-pot by punching it all over with small holes. They run a score to the square foot, and are a mark of attention on the part of our guards, who, lying down over yonder in the plain, could plainly distinguish the light-coloured building and made a target of it. In many places the ground is ploughed up in a curious way, and all about in the dust lie oblong cylinders of metal, steel tubes with a brass band round one end. These would puzzle you. They are empty shell cases. The tops, as you see, have been blown off, which is done by the bursting charge timed by a fuse to ignite at a certain range, i.e., above and a little short of the object aimed at. The explosion of the bursting charge by the recoil, checks for an instant the flight of the shell, and this instant's check has the effect of releasing the bullets with which the case is filled. These fly forward with the original motion and impetus of the shell itself, spreading as they go. Horizontal fire is easy to find cover against, but these discharges from on high are much more difficult to evade. For instance, ant-hills are excellent cover against rifles, but none at all against these shells. It is shrapnel, as this kind of shell is called, that does the most mischief. The round bullets (200 to a caseful) lie scattered about in the dust, and mixed with them are very different little slender silvery missiles, quite pretty and delicate, like jewellers' ornaments. These are Lee-Metford bullets. You could pick up a pocketful in a short time.
The action itself was mainly an infantry one. Here are one or two jottings taken that day:—
"November 26th, 7.30 A.M.—We left camp, six miles south of Modder River, a little before daylight and marched north. The country is like what one imagines a North American prairie to be, a sea of whitish, coarse grass, with here and there a low clump of bushes (behind one of which we are halted as I write this). One can see a vast distance over the surface. Along the north horizon there is a ripple of small hills and kopjes, looking blue, with the white grass-land running up to them. It is a comparatively cool morning with a few light clouds in the sky and a pleasant breeze. On our left is the railway, and all along on our right, extending far in front and far behind, advances the army."
"We incline to the left near to the railway. The horrid, little, grey-bluish, armoured train crawls in front. It is dreadfully excited always in presence of the enemy, darting forward and then running back like a scorpion when you tease it with your stick-end. One can see by its agitation this morning that the enemy are not far off. Behind it comes a train of open trucks with the famous Naval Brigade, with their guns, search-light, &c. The river flows somewhere across the landscape yonder in the plains. One cannot see it, but a few belts of bushes indicate its course. It is just that awkward moment before one gets touch of the enemy. They, no doubt, can see us (I wonder how they like the look of us), but we cannot see them. They must be somewhere along the river among those bushes, and probably in trenches. But where does their main strength lie? where are their guns? There goes fire, away on the right (probably at the Lancers, who are the right flankers); the dull short discharge of Mausers. The train moves forward a hundred yards, but as yet the men keep their places, clustered in the trucks. Two officers standing on a carriage roof watch with a telescope the distant fire. It has now ceased. A flag-wagger flutters his flag in eager question. Nothing moves on the plain save here and there a lonely prowling horseman, cantering on, or dismounted and peering through his glass. It was three minutes to eight when the first shot was fired. 'This will be a bit more history for the kiddies to learn,' yawns the next man to me, leaning idly over his pony."
"It is a half-hour later as the great guns begin their booming; that solemn, deep-toned sound like the striking of a great cathedral clock. We moved forward to the top of a rise overlooking the distant river and village."
"A dead level stretches below us to the river, marked by some bush tufts and the few roofs of Modder River village. The Naval Brigade have got their four guns in the plain just near the foot of our hill. They are hard at work now bombarding the enemy's big gun by the river. This, after a while, is almost silenced. Each time it speaks again the deadly naval guns are on to it. At last, when it does fire, it shows by its erratic aim that its best gunners are out of action."
"9.30.—The naval guns draw slowly closer to the river. Every shell bursts along the opposite bank where the enemy are. More to the right and nearer the river our field-batteries are pounding away as hard as they can load and fire. All the time the subdued rumble of Maxims and rifles goes on, like a rumble of cart-wheels over a stony road. Now it increases to one continuous roar, now slackens till the reports separate. Now, after one and a half hours, the fight seems to be concentrating towards the village opposite. A haze of smoke hangs over the place. The guns thunder. The enemy's Maxim-Nordenfelt goes rat-tat-tat a dozen times with immense rapidity. 'Come in,' says a Tommy of the Grenadiers who has come to our hill for orders; and indeed it sounds exactly like some one knocking at a street door. Now the under-current of rifle fire becomes horrible in its rapidity. Can anything in that hell down there be left alive? Suddenly their plucky big gun opens again and sends several well-directed shells among our batteries. The naval guns turn their attention to it immediately. You can see the little, quick glints of fire low along the ground at each discharge, and then the bursting shell just over the big gun on the river-bank."
"10 A.M.—Both sides are sticking to the business desperately. The rattle of rifle-fire is one low roar. The air shudders and vibrates under it. Now the naval guns draw towards the river again; so do the rest of our batteries. Things can't stand at this tension. The big gun speaks again, but wildly; its shell bursts far out on the plain."
"10.30.—The aspect of the place is now awful. The breeze has died a little and the smoke hangs more. It is enveloped in a haze of yellow and blue vapour, partly from bursting shell and partly firing guns. Those volumes of smoke, with gleams of fire every now and then, make it look like some busy manufacturing town, and the blows and throbs with which the place resounds convey the same idea."
"11 A.M.—The fight is dogged as ever but slower. There are cessations of firing altogether, and it is comparatively slow when continued. The stubbornness of the enemies' resistance to our attack and to the fearful shelling they have had is calling forth expressions of astonishment and admiration from the onlooking officers on the hill."
"As the circle narrowed and our attack concentrated on the village and bridge, we all thought that the end was coming, and, on a lull of the firing about 11.30 the Major even exclaimed, 'There, I think that's the end, and I can only say thank God for it.' But he was wrong. He had scarcely said it when that indomitable heavy gun of theirs, re-supplied with gunners, began again; again the Naval guns, on a tested range, crack their shrapnel right in its face; the batteries all open and soon the whole orchestra is thundering again. That dreadful muttering, the 'rub-a-dub, a-dub-a-dub, a-dub-a-dub' (say it as fast as you can) of the rifles keeps on; through all the noise of fire, the sharp, quick bark of the Boer Maxim-Nordenfelt sounds at intervals and the mingled smoke and dust lies in a haze along the river."
It was, all through, almost entirely an infantry action, but about the middle of the day we were sent down to the river on the Boer right, as parties of the enemy were thought to be breaking away in that direction. And here, I am sorry to say, poor Parker who had served in the Greek-Turkish war, and used to beguile our long night marches with stories of the Thessalian hills and the courage of the Turks, was hit, it is feared mortally. The fight itself continued with intermissions all day, and even in the evening, though parts of the Boer position had been captured and many of them had fled, there were some who still made good their defence, holding out in places of vantage with the greatest obstinacy. These took advantage of the night to escape, and it was not till next morning that we had the place in our possession. The Boers themselves, as we are told by people here, thought the position impregnable. Certainly it was very strong. The river has cut a channel or groove thirty feet deep in the ground; the edges, sharp and distinct, so that men can lie on the slant and look out across the plain. A big loop in the river is subtended by a line of trenches and rifle-pits hastily dug (they only decided twenty-four hours before the attack to defend the position; this by Cronje's advice, who had just come south from Mafeking, the others were for retiring to the next range of hills), from which the whole advance of our infantry across the level is commanded. "We," as the soldiers explained to me, "could see nothing in our front but a lot of little heads popping up to fire and then popping down again." These shelters, a long line of them, are littered thick with empty cartridge cases, hundreds in each; one thinks involuntarily of grouse-driving. Bodies, still unburied, lay about when I was there. Such odours! such sights! The unimaginable things that the force of shot and shell can do to poor, soft, human flesh. I saw soldiers who had helped to do the work turn from those trenches shaking.
THE FOUR POINT SEVEN
MODDER RIVER CAMP,
A few days ago we welcomed a distinguished stranger here in the shape of a long 4.7 naval gun. They set him up in the road just outside the station, with his flat-hatted sailors in zealous attendance, where he held a day-long levee. The gun is a remarkable object among the rest of our artillery. Its barrel, immensely long but very slender, has a well-bred, aristocratic look compared with the thick noses of our field-guns. It drives its forty-five pound shell about seven miles, and shoots, I am told, with perfect accuracy. It is an enlarged edition of the beautiful little twelve-pounders which we have hitherto been using, and which exceed the range of our fifteen-pounder field-guns by about a half. Why should naval guns be so vastly superior to land ones?
I interviewed the sailors on the accomplishments of the new-comer, and on the effects especially of lyddite, about which we hear so much. One must allow for a little friendly exaggeration, but if the mixture of truth is in any decent proportion, I should say that spades to bury dead Boers with are all the weapons that the rest of us will require in future. The gun uses shrapnel as well, but relies for its main effects on lyddite. As for this horrible contrivance, all I can say is that the Geneva Conference ought to interdict it. The effects of the explosion of a lyddite shell are as follows:—Any one within 50 yards is obliterated, blown clean away. From 50 to 100 yards they are killed by the force of the concussion of the air. From 100 to 150 yards they are killed by the fumes or poisonous gases which the shell ex-hales. From 150 to 200 they are not killed, but knocked senseless, and their skin is turned to a brilliant green colour. From 200 to 250 they are so dazed and stupefied as to be incapable of action, and, generally speaking, after that any one in the district or neighbourhood of the shock is "never the same man again." This is no mere rumour, for I have it direct from the naval gunners themselves.
This morning, well before light, we took out our gentleman, dragged by an immense string of oxen, to introduce him to his future victims and whet his appetite by a taste. The Boer position lies some six miles to the north of the river. The most conspicuous feature of it is a hill projecting towards us like a ship's ram and dipping sharply to the plain. Magersfontein, they call it. The railway going north leaves it to the right, but other hills and kopjes carry on the position westward across the railway, barring an advance. It is evident that we shall have to take the place in front, as we are not strong enough nor mobile enough to go round.
We have a few reinforcements, notably the Highland Brigade, also the 12th Lancers under Airlie, and some Horse Artillery pop-guns.
There is a good deal of bush on the plain, especially to the right of the steep hill, where it is quite thick. During the last week we have been poking about in this a good deal, approaching the hill now on this side, now on that, under cover of the scrub, examining and searching, but with very little result. They keep themselves well hidden. The hills look untenanted except that now and then we have seen parties of Boers wending their way in between the kopjes and driving in herds of cattle.
In the thick bush on the eastern plain, as we lay one morning at daybreak, we could hear the shouts of men and catch glimpses of them here and there riding about and urging their cattle on. Some passed not far from where we lay crouched (we had left our ponies on the outskirts of the bush). It seemed funny to watch them riding to and fro, unconscious of our presence and calling to each other. It reminded me of some boy's game of hide-and-seek or Tom Tiddler's ground. We have had two or three casualties, and lost two prisoners, and we have bagged several of them. The army is resting.
Well, this morning, as I was saying, we take our Long Tom (Joey, as he is now called, out of compliment to Chamberlain) out for a shot. Here is a note about it:—
"4.30 A.M.—Our little groups of horse, in threes and fours, are clustered behind bushes. There is a whispered consultation round our large gun and his nose slowly rises. The jerk of the lanyard is followed by a frightful explosion and then comes the soaring noise of the flying shell and the red spark and column of dust on the kopje. The range has been well judged, for the first shot falls with beautiful accuracy just on the hill where they are supposed to be.
"It is worth getting up at this time to enjoy the delicious, pure, and fresh air. The glow of sunrise is in the sky, but not yet the sun. There are some long streaks and films of rosy cloud along the east. Already, after five shots, the whole kopje is enveloped in dust and reddish smoke from the bursting lyddite, but elsewhere between us and the sunrise the hills are a perfect dark blue, pure blocks of the colour. The Lancers on their horses show black against the sky as they canter, scattering through the underwood with graceful slanting lances. At slow deliberate intervals the long gun tolls. Dead silence is the only reply. The sun rises and glares on the rocky hills. Not a living thing is to be seen."
MODDER RIVER CAMP,
December 13, 1899.
When we were camped a day's march south of this, two Boers brought in a wounded man of ours in a Cape cart. "You will never get to Kimberley," they said to us. "It will take better men than you to stop us," said we. "Not a bit of it," said they, and off they drove. As it turns out, they were nearer the mark than we were.
While I write this, early on the morning of the 13th, you at home may just be reading in the papers the accounts of our last two days' disastrous fighting. It was a defeat, but yet it was a defeat which was not felt nor realised by the bulk of the army. It was a blow that fell entirely on one brigade, and the greater part of our force was still awaiting the order to advance, and expecting to engage the enemy when already the attack, unknown to us, had been delivered and repulsed.
Last Sunday, December 10th, about 2 P.M., we moved out of camp northward towards the point of the big hill, that, like a cape, juts south into the plain. With all our guns ranged about the point of the hill, we then proceeded to thrash and batter it with shell-fire. No gun-fire that we have had as yet has approached this for rapidity. The batteries roared ceaselessly from the plain; the big 4.7 lifting up its voice from a little in the rear high above the din. The day was cloudy, and rain fell at intervals, but towards the evening it cleared. My troop was on the extreme left front, on the west side of the hill, and we had a fine view of the effect as the shells burst one after another, or sometimes three or four together, all along the hill flank, up on the crest, or in the plain along the base.
"5 P.M.—The hill is all one heavy dull hue in the sombre evening light, and against it the sharp glints of fire as the shrapnel bursts, and the round puff-balls of white smoke show vividly. Every now and then a great curtain of murky vapour goes up to show where the old lyddite-slinger in the rear is depositing his contributions. We had three field-batteries engaged, the naval twelve-pounders, Joey, and the pop-guns; about thirty guns altogether."
We slept that night by the side of the railway, tethering our horses to the wire fence that runs down it. Rain fell heavily all night. Most of us had no blankets, and we lay bundled up, shivering under our greatcoats on the sopping ground. Unable to sleep well, I heard, just about or before dawn, a distant drumming, like the noise of rain on the window, but recognised immediately as distant rifle-fire. Morning broke, cheerless and wet. I asked if any one had heard firing during the night, but no one near me had. Shivering and breakfastless, save for a morsel of biscuit and a sip of muddy water, we saddle our dripping horses and fall in. A Tommy sitting in the ditch, the picture of misery; cold, and hungry, with the rain trickling from his sodden helmet on to his face; breaks into a hymn, of which the first verse runs:—
"There is a happy land Far, far away, Where they get ham and eggs Three times a day."
I find myself dwelling on the words as we move off. Can there be such a land? Can there be so blessed a place?
We reach the ganger's hut, and the light spreads and rests on the hills. Immediately we are deafened by a shattering report close behind us, and starting round, find the long nose of Joey projecting almost over our heads, while the scream of the shell dies away in the distance as it speeds towards the Boer hill. One of the naval officers gives me a first hint of the truth. There has certainly been an attack, he says, but he fears unsuccessful.
We took the matter up, then, where we left off yesterday, all our batteries coming into action and shelling the hills most furiously. The enemy replied with three guns only, but so well placed were they that we found it impossible to silence them. While our fire was concentrated on to any one of them, it would remain silent, but, after a short interval, would always begin again, to the rage of our gunners. There is especially a big gun of theirs in a fold of the hill just at the crest, between which and "Joey" exist terms of mortal defiance. Nothing else it appears can touch either of them; so while the lesser cannonade rages in the middle, these two lordly creatures have a duel of their own and exchange the compliments of the season with great dignity and deliberation over the others' heads. It has gone all in favour of "Joey" while I was watching, the Boer gun being rather erratic and most of its shells falling short. It made one good shot just in front of us, and it was really comic to see how "Joey," who had been looking for other adversaries for the moment, came swinging round at the voice of his dearest foe. The explosion of the big gun almost knocks one backwards, and I feel the sudden pressure on my ears of the concussion.
Later in the day "Joey" and I got quite thick. There is a double kopje, detached from the main Boer position on our side, known as the Dumbell Kopje. From our left-front place we could see a lot of Boers clustered under the hill, pasted, like swarming bees, up against the lee of it, while the naval gun's shells—for he evidently had a nonchalant idea that there was some one about there—went flying overhead and bursting beyond. This was very irritating to watch, and I was glad to be sent back to "whisper a word in his ear." Making a hasty sketch of the hill, I galloped back and presented it to the captain with explanation, and had the satisfaction of seeing 300 yards knocked off "Joey's" next shot, which was, I should judge, a very hot one. "Stay and have some grub," said the jolly naval captain. We sat on the ground eating and drinking, while "Joey" peppered the Dutchmen.
As for the fight itself, people seem inclined to make a great mystery about it and talk about "the difficulty of getting at the truth;" but I don't see myself where the mystery comes in. What happened was this. The Highland Brigade (Black Watch, Seaforths, Argyle and Sutherlands, and Highland Light Infantry) was told off for the night attack and marched before light to the hill. The night was very dark and heavy rain falling. The ground was rough, stony, and rocky, with a good deal of low scrub, bushes, and thorn trees, very difficult to get through at night. The difficulty of moving masses of men with any accuracy in the dark is extreme, and to keep them together at all it was necessary for them to advance in a compact body. In quarter column, therefore, the Brigade advanced and approached the foot of the hill. I have noticed several times that when you get rather close to the hill the rise comes to look more gradual and the ridge itself does not stand up in the abrupt and salient way that it does from a distance. Whether it was this, or simply that the darkness of the night hid the outline, at any rate the column approached the hill and the trench which runs at the foot of the hill much too closely before the order to extend was given. When it was given it was too late. They were in the act of executing it when the volley came.
Of course an attack like this cannot be intended altogether as a surprise—that is, it cannot be pushed home as a surprise. You cannot march 4000 heavy-booted men through broken ground on a dark night without making plenty of noise over it; also the Boers must certainly have had pickets out, which would have moved in as we advanced and given the alarm. But had our fellows deployed at half a mile, or less, under cover of darkness, and then advanced in open order, the enemy could not have seen clearly enough to shoot with accuracy until they were fairly close, and I daresay the fire then would not have stopped their rush.
As it was, the fire came focussed on a mass of men, such a fire as I suppose has never been seen before, for not only was it a tremendous volley poured in at point-blank range, but it was a sustained volley; the rapid action of the magazines enabling the enemy to keep up an unintermittent hail of bullets on the English column. To advance under fire of this sort is altogether impossible. It is not a question of courage, but of the impossibility of a single man surviving. At the Modder fight our men advanced to a certain distance, but could get no nearer. They were forced to lie down and remain lying down. The fire of magazine rifles is such that, unless helped by guns or infinitely the stronger, the attackers have no chance of getting home. People will keep on talking as if courage did these things. What the devil's the use of the bravest man with half-a-dozen bullets through him? It is just as certain as anything can be that, if the Highlanders had "gone on," in two minutes not a man would have been left standing. Already in the brief instant that they stood, dazed by the fire, they lost between six and seven hundred men. The Black Watch was in front, and nineteen out of twenty-seven officers were swept down. You might as well talk of "going on" against a volcano in eruption.
I am writing this on the day after the action in my favourite lurking-place by the side of the river under the evergreens and big weeping willows that overhang the sluggish water. Our own small camp is close to the stream, and here every morning the Highlanders are in the habit of turning up, usually with much laughing and shouting, to bathing parade. There is no laughing this morning, only sad, sullen faces, silence and downcast looks. Still they are glad to talk of it. A few come under the shade of my tree, and sit about and tell me the little bit that each saw or heard. You only get a general impression of chaos. Some tried to push on, some tried to extend, some lay down, and some ran back out of close range and took up such cover as they could get. This was, luckily, pretty good, there being a lot of bush and rocks about, and here they gradually crawled together and got into some sort of order, and kept up a counter fire at the Boer position. The Brigade, however, had been badly shaken, and as hour after hour passed all through the blazing day, and they were kept lying there under the fire of an entrenched enemy, exhausted and parched with thirst, their patience gradually failed, and they made another rush back, but were rallied and led up again to where the Mausers might play on them. They were not allowed to retire till after five, when all the troops were withdrawn—that is, until they had been shot over at close range for about fourteen mortal hours.
The Brigade was asked to do too much, and when at last they staggered out of action, the men jumped and started at the rustle of a twig. It's a miserable thing when brave men are asked to do more than brave men can do.
One thing that added to the panic was that none, at least among the men and junior officers, knew anything at all about the trench. They thought they were going to storm the hill. So that things were so contrived that the bewilderment of a surprise should be added to the terrors of the volley. You will scarcely believe this perhaps. I have just come from having tea with the Argyle and Sutherland. Of the eight or ten officers there, not one had heard of the trench. Here, by the river, I have talked to a score of Highlanders, and not one had heard of it either. They "didn't know what the hell was up" when the volley came. We could scarcely have provided all the elements of a panic more carefully.
Nothing of note followed during the day. Airlie fended off a Boer flanking move on our right, and the Coldstreams backed up the Highlanders a bit, but practically only the Highland Brigade was in it. It was a disaster to that Brigade only, and consequently the rest of the army does not feel itself defeated, and is not in any way discouraged. Some people suggest now that we in our turn may be attacked, and that the enemy may try and retake the river position from which we shifted him a fortnight ago. It is reported that they have got up heavy reinforcements from Natal, and some long-range guns that will reach our camp from the hill. All kinds of rumours are afloat, mostly to the effect that the Boers are circling round behind us, via Douglas on the west and Jacobsdal on the east, and mean cutting our communications. However, as I have long since found out, a camp is a hot-bed of lies. Nothing positive is known, for every one is kept in careful ignorance of everything that is going on. The idea is that the British soldier can only do himself justice when the chance of taking anything like an intelligent interest in his work is altogether denied him. The consequence is he is driven to supply the deficiency out of his own imagination. Ladysmith has already been taken and relieved at least a dozen times, and Mafeking almost as often. To-day Buller is on his way to Pretoria; to-morrow the Boer army will be marching on Cape Town.
As for our own little army, we have been digging ourselves in here, and are perfectly secure, and I daresay we shall be able to keep open the line all right. As to relieving Kimberley, that is another thing. Cronje evidently doesn't think we can, for he has just sent us in a message offering us twenty-four hours to clear out in. He is a bit of a wag is old Cronje.
BIVOUAC ON THE MODDER,
January 15, 1900.
At Modder River camp the dust lies thick and heavy. Every breeze that blows lifts clouds of it, that hang in the air like a dense London fog, and mark the site of the camp miles and miles away. The river, more muddy than ever, moves languidly in its deep channel. There is a Boer laager some miles above the camp, the scourings of which—horrid thought!—are constantly brought down to us. The soldiers eye the infected current askance and call it Boervril. Its effect is seen in the sickness that is steadily increasing.
Thank goodness we escape it. An advantage of scouting is, that, when it comes to a standing camp, with its attendant evils of dirt, smells, and sickness, your business carries you away, in front, or out along the flanks, where you play at hide-and-seek with the enemy, trap and are trapped, chase and are chased, and where you bivouac healthily and pleasantly, if not in such full security, at some old Dutch farm, where probably fowls are to be bought, or milk and butter; or under groups of mimosa trees among stoney deserted kopjes, where there is plenty of wood for burning, as likely as not within reach of some old garden with figs in it ripening and grapes already ripe.
One of the little pictures I shall remember belonging to Modder camp is the sight of the soldiers at early mass. You can picture to yourself a wide, flat dusty plain held in the bent arm of the river, with not a tree or bush on it; flat as a table, ankle-deep in grey dust, and with a glaring, blazing sun looking down on it. The dust is so hot and deep that it reminds one more of the ashes on the top of Vesuvius—you remember that night climb of ours?—than of anything else.
Laid out in very formal and precise squares are the camps of the various brigades, the sharp-pointed tents ranged in exact order and looking from far off like symmetrical little flower-beds pricked out on the sombre plain.
A stone's throw from the river is a mud wall, with a mud house at one side scarcely rising above it, yet house and wall giving in the early morning a patch of black shadow in the midst of the glare. Here the old priest used to celebrate his mass. A hundred or two of Tommies and a few officers would congregate here soon after sunrise, and stand bare-headed till the beams looked over the wall, when helmet after helmet would go on; or kneel together in the dust while the priest lifted the host. Every man had his arms, the short bayonet bobbing on the hip; every brown and grimy hand grasped a rifle; and as the figures sink low at the ringing of the bell, a bristle of barrels stands above the bowed heads. Distant horse hoofs drum the plain as an orderly gallops from one part of the camp to another. Right facing us stands Magersfontein, its ugly nose with the big gun at the end of it thrust out towards us. How many of this little brotherhood under the mud wall, idly I wonder, will ever see English meadows again?
The Boers still face us at Magersfontein. Their left is south of the Modder. They have a strong laager at Jacobsdal on the Reit, and have pushed west and south of that, where, from the kopjes about Zoutspan and Ramdam, they threaten our lines of communication. The Reit river, flowing almost south and north for some distance parallel to the railway, though a good way east of it, is a strengthening feature for them in that part of the field, and taking advantage of it, they have brought their left well round. Their right, on the other hand, is scarcely brought round at all, but stretches about east and west, following the course of the Modder, and extending as far west as Douglas, fifty miles from Modder camp. They make raids south. Pilcher the other day cut some of them up at Sunnyside and took Douglas, but evacuated it again, and it is now in their hands. Altogether you can compare the Boer attitude to a huge man confronting you, Magersfontein being his head, his left arm brought round in front of him almost at right angles to his body and his right stretched wide out in line with his shoulders. From time to time he makes little efforts to bring these outstretched arms farther round, as if to clasp and enfold the British position at Modder River, and it is with the special object of observing and reporting on these movements that our scouting is carried on. This is now attended to by fifteen of us only, under Chester Master, the rest of the corps, with the Major, having gone down to join French at Colesberg now that the advance here has ceased. On the east side of the line we patrol the plain nearly to Jacobsdal, and often lie in the grass or sit among the rocks and watch the little figures of Boers cantering along the road that leads south by the river. Further scouting in that direction is carried on by the garrison along the line.
A strong reconnaissance of ours the other day (January 9th) in the direction of Jacobsdal was a very dignified and solemn exhibition. Our guns rumbled forward with their eight-horse teams across the plain, while our cavalry, stretched out in open order at fifty yards apart, traversed the country in long strings that might have been seen and admired by the enemy at a distance, I daresay, of twenty miles. Chester Master took us forward on the left close to the river, where a party of the enemy, stealing up from the river-bed, tried to cut us off—there were only six or eight of us—and chivied us back to the main body as hard as we could go, two miles ventre a terre through the pelting rain, blazing away from horseback all the time at us, but naturally doing no harm. We thought we should lead them into a trap when we lifted the rise, but our troops had all halted far back in the plain, and our pursuers turned as soon as they saw them. However, we got some men to join us, and set to work to chase them as they had done us. It was really quite exciting; little bent figures of horsemen with flapping hats on ahead, bundling along for dear life, each with its spot of dust attending, we following, whooping and spurring. But bustled as they were, the Boers knew the way they were going. There are some narrow belts of bush that run out from the river into the plain, and as we neared one of these, crick-crack, crick-crack, the familiar croaking voices of Mausers warned us against a nearer approach. We dismounted and fired away vaguely at the distant foe, not so much with the idea of hitting anything, but it is always a relief to one's feelings. I don't know why the guns didn't come up, but was told that they didn't like to push on too far, as the Boers were supposed to be in force here. It seemed a pity to miss such a good shot, especially as we had an enormous great escort and an open country back to camp. But that is the way with guns; sometimes they rush up to within 500 yards of the enemy before they shoot, and sometimes they won't shoot at all.
The afternoon was spent in carrying out our reconnaissance. A reconnaissance is undertaken with a view to exposing the enemy's position and strength. Without intending a real attack, you demonstrate, feign a forward movement, push on in one place or another, or threaten to turn his flanks; so obliging him to move his men here and there, expose his strength and the limits of the position, and, perhaps, the whereabouts and number of his guns, if they should be tempted to open fire at our scouts. This is the theory of the thing. In practice it doesn't quite work, owing to the utter ignorance of the Boers of all military tactics. On all occasions when we have carried out these manoeuvres, notably round the Magersfontein hills before the battle, they have not only failed to make the proper responses to our moves, but have neglected to take notice of them in any way whatever. Not a gun speaks, not a man is to be seen. We demonstrate before empty hills. Creepily, you may conjecture the fierce eyes along the rock edge, but nothing shows. In vain we circle about the plain, advance, retire, curtsey, and set to him; our enemy, like the tortoise, "will not join the dance." Nothing is more discouraging. It is like playing to an empty house. However, as young B—— said to me, we did our part anyway, and if they are so ignorant as not to know the counter-moves, well, they must take the consequences. Manoeuvres of this kind, I must tell you, are a high test of military skill, and are often not fully intelligible to the lay mind. As an instance of this, I heard a man of ours, a shrewd fellow but no soldier, say, in his coarse Colonial way, as we were riding home, that he "was glad we had finished making a b——y exhibition of ourselves." It is to be hoped that after a little we shall get to appreciate these manoeuvres better. Just at first there is a slight suggestion of Gilbert and Sullivan about them.
SCOUTING ON THE MODDER
THORNHILL FARM, January 30, 1900.
On the eastern or Jacobsdal side the country is all a plain, dull and monotonous like a huge prairie, with no shade from the heat or shelter from the thunderstorms. On the western side it is very different. Great hills run roughly parallel to the river course, but leave a wide plain between themselves and it. They are clothed with a few scant bushes, out of which their tops rise bare and rocky; but in the shady hollows and gorges the low thorn-trees (mimosas) grow thickly, and over the plain that stretches to the river their grey foliage gathers into thick covers or is sometimes dotted here and there. The smell of the mimosa flowers (little yellow balls of pollen-covered blossom) is the most delicious I know, and the air as we ride through these lonely covers, where a few buck seem the only tenants, is fragrant with it. Far apart there are farms, prettily situated, generally close to the hills, the rocky sides of the kopjes rising behind, the wide plain spread in front. Each has its dam, sometimes more than one, built round with mud embankments, with huge weeping willows overhanging, and rows of tall poplars and blue gums (with shreds of bark rattling), and plenty of other trees. The farmhouses themselves are uninteresting, but the gardens, with their great thicket hedges of prickly pear and quince and brilliant blossoming pomegranate, are delightful, especially at this time, when the fruit is just getting ripe.
It was out on this western side, where we were feeling for the enemy's right flank, some twenty miles from camp, in a niche half way up the mountain, that we spent our last Christmas. We rather expected an attack, as a Kaffir of ours had been taken by them, and might be expected to reveal our movements. After dark we climbed the hill, dragging our ponies over the boulders and scratching our way through the thorns.
The Boer hill was four or five miles distant, north across the plain. All along its purple sides we ranged with our glasses, seeing nothing; but after dark several little points of light showed where their laager was. We sat all night among the rocks (I thought of you and the roast-turkey and holly), occasional heavy drops of rain falling, and a flicker of lightning now and then. Heavy clouds rolled up, and the night set in as dark as pitch. The level plain below us lay flat as a pancake from their hill to ours. So passed our '99 Christmas, picturesque possibly, but not very comfortable. Dark hillside; rain in large warm drops; night dark, with a star or two and struggling moon. In front, a distant hillside, with points of camp-fire twinkling, where the Boers, indifferent to our little party, were carousing and drinking their dop. Now and then a yawn or groan as a man stretches his cramped limbs. Down below under us an expanse of dark plain, like a murky sea, reaching to our feet, which we peer across, but can make out nothing. Peep-of-day time is the Boer's favourite hour for a call, and we were all very much on the qui vive when the white line showed along the east. No doubt, however, they all had such heads after their Christmas drink that they were in no humour for such a diversion. At any rate, they let us alone. Very stiff and weary and wet, we crept down the hill soon after daybreak and started on our twenty-mile homeward march. It was 5 P.M. before we reached camp, and we had had nothing to eat all day. I don't know if we were most tired or hungry. Take that three days as a sample of work. We start at 6 A.M. on Sunday; do a full day's riding and scouting, and get three hours' sleep that night at Enslin. Then we saddle up and pass the rest of the night and all the next day riding, except when we are climbing hills on foot to look out. The second night we sit among the hills expecting an attack, and next day till one o'clock are in the saddle again. A la guerre comme a la guerre. Three days and two nights' hard work on three hours' sleep. And all this time you are drinking champagne (well, most of it, anyway), and sleeping in soft beds with delicious white sheets, and smoking Egyptian cigarettes, and wearing clean clothes, with nice stiff collars and shirt cuffs, and having a bath in the morning, warm, with sweet-smelling soap (Oh, my God!), and sitting side by side at table, first a man and then a woman; the same old arrangement, I suppose, knives to the right and forks to the left as usual. Ho! ho! There are times I could laugh. No doubt we shall all get redigested as soon as we get back, but meantime, as a set-off to the hardship, one knows what it is to feel free. We eat what we can pick up, and we lie down to sleep on the bare ground. We wash seldom, and our clothes wear to pieces on our bodies. We find we can do without many things, and though we sometimes miss them, there comes a keen sense of pleasure from being entire master of oneself and all one's possessions. Your water-bottle hangs on your shoulder; your haversack, with your blanket, is strapped to your saddle; rifle, bandolier, and a pair of good glasses are your only other possessions. As you stand at your pony's side ready to mount, you may be starting for the day or you may be away a fortnight, but your preparations are the same.
Above all others does this scouting life develop your faculties, sharpen your senses of hearing and of seeing, and, in practical ways, of thinking too; of noting signs and little portents and drawing conclusions from them; of observing things. You feel more alive than you ever felt before. Every day you are more or less dependent on your own faculties. Not only for food and drink for yourself and your pony, but for your life itself. And your faculties respond to the call. Your glance, as it scans the rocks and the plain, is more wary and more vigilant; your ears, as you lie in the scrub, prick themselves at a sound like a Red Indian's, and the least movement among cattle or game or Kaffirs, or the least sign that occurs within range of your glasses, is noticed and questioned in an instant.
This you get in return for all you give up—in return for the sweet-smelling soap and the footman who calls you in the morning. Oh, that pale-faced footman! It is dawn when, relieved on look-out, I clamber down the rocks to our bivouac. A few small fires burn, and my pal points to a tin coffee cup and baked biscuit by one of them. It is the hour at home for the pale-faced footman. I see him now, entering the room noiselessly with cautious tread as if it were a sick-room, softly drawing a curtain to let a little light into the darkened apartment, and approaching with a cup of tea that the poor invalid has barely to reach out his hand to. Round our little camp I look, noting trifles with a keen enjoyment. Shall I ever submit to that varlet again? No, never! I will leap from my bed and wrestle with him on the floor. I will anoint him with my shaving soap and duck him in the bath he meant for me. Do you know the emancipated feeling yourself? Do you know the sensation when your glance is like a sword-thrust and your health like a devil's; when just to touch things with your fingers gives a thrill, and to look at and see common objects, sticks and trees, is like drinking wine? Don't you? Oh, be called by twenty footmen and be hanged to you!
This Christmas patrol of ours was of use in touching the southernmost and westernmost limits of the Boer position. It has shown that the enveloping movement of which so much has been said, and which has been pressed now and then on the east side, has not made much progress on the west.
The big mountain range, running east and west, comes to an end some thirty miles west of Modder Camp, where it breaks up into a few detached masses and peaks. The extreme one of these, a sugar-loaf cone, is called the Pintberg, and on this lonely eerie a picket of ours is generally placed; crouched among the few crags and long grass tufts that form its point, the horses tethered in the hollow behind; listening by night and watching by day. When we come out thus far, we sometimes stay out a week or more at a time. The enemy's position is along the hills north of the plain by the river—chiefly north of it, but in places south.
I am turning over my diary with the idea of giving you a notion of the sort of life we lead, but find nothing remarkable.
"Last night, Vice, Dunkley, and I were on lookout on the kopje. There had been a heavy storm in the afternoon and another broke as we reached the hill. We crouched in our cloaks waiting for it to pass before climbing up, as the ironstone boulders are supposed to attract the lightning (I have heard it strike them; it makes a crack like a pistol-shot, and Colonials don't like staying on the hill tops during a storm). We passed all night on our airy perch among the rocks, half wet and the wind blowing strong. It was a darkish and cloudy night, rather cold. Watched the light die out of the stormy sky; the lightning flickering away to leeward; wet gleams from the plain where the water shone here and there; moaning and sighing of wind through rock and branch. We were relieved by Lancers in the morning and jogged back to Thornhill, where our little camp is, and I am writing this in the shade of a big mimosa close to the garden wall.
"I have seen prints in shop windows of farms and soldiers, bits of country life and war mixed, a party of Lancers or Uhlans calling at some old homestead, watering their horses or bivouacking in the garden. Often what I see now makes me think of these subjects. A large camp is hideous and depressing; dirty and worn, the ground trampled deep in dust; filth and refuse lying about; the entrails and skins of animals, flies, beastly smells, and no excitement or animation. But these outlying scenes, scouts, pickets, &c., have a peculiar interest. This garden, for instance, is itself pretty and wild, with its tangle of figs, its avenue of quinces (great golden fruit hanging), its aloes all down the side, with heavy, blue spikes and dead stems sticking thirty feet in air, branching and blackened like fire-scorched fir-trees, and its dark green oranges and other fruit and flower-trees all mixed in a kind of wilderness; and behind this the steep kopjes, with black boulders heaped to the sky, and soft grey mimosas in between. It is a pretty spot in itself, but what a different, strange interest is brought in by the two or three carbines leaning against the wall, the ponies, ready saddled, tethered at the corner, the hint of camp-fire smoke climbing up through a clump of trees, and now and then a khaki-clad figure or two passing between the trunks or lying under them asleep."
Here is another little extract, a bit of a night-spy by three of us on the west side, where we had heard that the Douglas commando was establishing a laager near a drift some thirteen miles below camp; a move forward of their right arm, if true.
"The night was dark as pitch, and very windy, just what we wanted. After missing our way several times, whispering, consulting, and feeling about in the dark, we came on the wattle fence and beehive huts of a Kaffir kraal. Up to this we crept, and Vice dived into the hole of an entrance, and after some underground rumblings emerged with an old nigger as you draw a badger from his earth. The old man was soon persuaded by a moderate bribe to be our guide to the spot we wished to reconnoitre. He told us that parties of Boers were pretty often round that way, and that one had passed the previous night at the kraal. Dunkley agreed to stay with the horses, and Vice and I went on with the Kaffir. The country was grassy, with plentiful belts and clumps of silvery bush. After a while the moon shone out and the clouds dispersed, which made us feel disagreeably conspicuous in the white patches between the bush."
Exmoor, as far as the contour of the ground is concerned, is a little like the more up-and-down parts of the veldt, and scouting there would be very much like scouting here. For instance, suppose your camp was at Minehead, the Boers being in strength at Winsford, and a report comes in that they have pushed on a strong picket to Simonsbath. This rumour it is your business to test. With two friends on a dark, windy night you set out. You leave the road and take to the moor. You ride slowly, listening, watching intently, keeping off the high ground, and as much as possible avoiding sky-lines. At some cottage or moorland farm you leave the horses and creep forward on foot, working along the hollows and studying every outline. If they are at Simonsbath, they will have a lookout on the hill this side. A British picket would show its helmets at a mile, but the Boers don't affect sky-lines. They will be on this side, with the hill for a background, and very likely right down on the flat; for though by day the higher you are the better for seeing, yet at night, when your only chance is to see people against the sky, the lower you are the better. These points and others you discuss in whispers, crouched in the dark hollows, and then creep forward again.
"Vice and I crawled to the top of our ridge at last just as morning was breaking. There were bushes and rocks to hide among, and the clouds had all gone, and day broke clear. The deep river ravine lay right below us, and as the light penetrated, the first thing we saw was a small shelter tent with a cart or waggon by the side of it. We grinned and nudged each other and wagged our heads at the discovery, but kept them carefully hidden. Farther west was a detached kopje, the site of a permanent Boer picket, according to the Kaffir; but there was no regular laager. There were no horses grazing about, no cattle, no smoke, none of the usual and inevitable signs. A picket! Yes. Pushed out from Koodoosberg, the big hill which rises abruptly from the plain three or four miles off, but no real occupation. After studying the country yard by yard with our glasses, and making a few notes about the lie of the land and the names and positions of farms, we creep off and get back to camp by mid-day."
The results of these exciting little prowls, when worth while, are sent in to the General, and from the mass of evidence thus placed before him he is supposed to be able to define the enemy's position and movements.
Chester Master and our little body were paid a pretty compliment by the General the other day; for the Major having written to ask if we might join him, Methuen replied that he was sorry to have to refuse, but that we were doing invaluable work, and he really couldn't spare us.
Well, fare you well. We hear of heavy reinforcements arriving. They will be very welcome. Magersfontein, Colenso, Stormberg; we could do with a change. But what a revelation, is it not? Are these the prisoners that we played at dice for? One thing in it all pleases me, and that is the temper and attitude of England. I like the gravity, the quiet, dogged rolling up of the shirt-sleeves much better than the blustering, wipe-something-off-a-slate style which the papers made so familiar to us at the beginning.
MODDER RIVER CAMP,
February 13, 1900.
We are back in the old camp, but only for a few hours. This afternoon we march. Yesterday, crossing the line, we had a glimpse of Rimington and the rest of the corps. They have come up with French, and are off eastward on the flank march. We shall be after them hotfoot before dark. Things begin to shape themselves. We are going to bring our right arm round, leaving Magersfontein untouched, and relieve Kimberley by a flank march in force. Methuen stays here. Poor fellow! I wish him joy of it. Bobs and Kitchener direct the advance; French heads it. They say we shall march 50,000 strong. The line is choked with troop trains, batteries, siege guns, naval guns, and endless truckloads of stores and provisions. At last! is every one's feelings. The long waited for moment has come. You know a hawk's hover? Body steady, wings beating, and then the rushing swoop. So with the army. We have hovered steady here these two months with our wings stretched. Now we swoop.
Far out on the left flank our little body of fifteen has been in a great state of suspense for several weeks. We knew the great tide of advance was setting up from Orange River to the Modder, and as no orders came for us, we began to think we should be out of it. Then one evening, as I was sitting on some boulders above camp looking out over the country, I saw Chester Master riding in from headquarters with a smile on his face, and the sort of look that a man has who brings good news. Down I clambered. Yes, it had come. We were to move that night. The advance had begun, and we were off on an all-night march to catch up French. What a change came over the men! Instead of bored, sulky faces, and growlings and grumblings, all were now keen and alert. When the moon rose we started. Our very ponies seemed to know they were "in the movement," and stepped out cheerily. The night was clear as silver, and each man's shadow moved by his side, clean cut on the ground like the shadows thrown by the electric light outside the Criterion. Song and joke passed once more, and soon up went the favourite cavalry march, the most stirring tune of any, "Coming thro' the Rye." It was very jolly. Not often has one ridden on such a quest, on such a night, to such a tune as that.
So, old Modder, fare you well! Farewell the huge plain that one grew so fond of, with its blue and yellow bars of light, morning and evening; the shaggy kopjes heaped with black rocks, the secluded, lonely farms nestling beneath, old Cook's, where the figs were ripe in the garden, and Mrs. Dugmore, who gave us fresh bread and butter and stewed peaches. Not soon shall I forget those morning patrols. The sea of veldt, the pure air, the carelessness, the comradeship, and the freedom. Old Gordon has a good verse that I find sometimes running in my head—
"It was merry in the morning Among the gleaming grass, To wander as we've wandered many a mile, And blow the cool tobacco cloud And watch the white wreaths pass, Sitting loosely in the saddle all the while."
And then the secret bivouacs and lurking-places along the river or in among the deserted hills. The lookout from the tall pyramid, where I have kept watch so many hours day and night, in heat of sun or with stars glittering overhead.
It was from this kopje that we got notice to quit, by the way. Our notice taking the shape of several little brown-backed Boers galloping about and spying at us from a hill one and a half miles to the north. That night we drew out in the plain after dark and camped (no fires) among the bushes, and at grey dawn stole back to have another look. Back dashes one of our advance scouts to tell us that a big force of Boers was just rounding the point. Next minute we were swinging out into the plain, through the low scrub and thorn bush, and as we did so the Boers came through the Nek. They must have known exactly where our usual camp was, and crept up overnight to cut us off. It wasn't by much that they missed. Three or four loiterers, as it was, had a warm minute or two. The first single shots grew to a sudden fierce crackle, like the crackle of a dry thorn branch on the fire, as they came through the bush. But they came on nevertheless, one horse hit only, and joined us, and we formed up and started at a steady gallop for the hills beyond the plain, six miles off; where there was a quite strong camp, established a few days before, for which we have lately been scouting. The Boers chased us some way, but we had got a long start, as they came through the rough ground, and they were never on terms with us. Still it was near enough. Five minutes earlier and what a slating we should have got!
We were told afterwards that the plan on this side was to draw the Boers south of the hills, so as to give the cavalry, which was to move westward just north of the range, a chance of cutting them off. The cavalry, however, didn't turn up. No one seemed to know what had become of them, and I daresay they were saying the same of us. The advice not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing is sometimes rather too literally followed in these manoeuvres, I think. Meantime the Boers have driven off all old Cook's cattle and all Mrs. Dugmore's too; and as we were sent out with the express object of "reassuring the farmers," the result is not entirely satisfactory.
No matter; this was all a side issue; now for a larger stage and more important operations. Blow trumpets and sound drums. Enter Lord Roberts and the main army.