On the way to Johannesburg--29th May--2 p.m.--Attack begins--The advance--Checked by flanking fire from One Tree Hill--Attack of this position--Through veldt fire--Final charge--Boer retreat-- Gordons attack simultaneously--Main attack pushed home--Casualties.
On Sunday, the 27th of May, we started at 8.30 a.m., and marched some sixteen miles before camping. Bitterly cold it was that night, and we felt it a good deal the next day, when we started at 6.45 a.m. and trekked 10 miles to a small hill a little south of Cypherfontein; here, during most of the afternoon, we heard shells and pom-poms and other indications of a brisk fight going on towards the north. Away to the south we could see dimly Lord Roberts' troops, who had crossed the Vaal at Vereeniging, higher up than we did, pressing on to the junction of the railways at Elandsfontein. Our business, we now learned, was to push off to the left and make an enveloping movement on the enemy's right, whilst General French delivered his blow in front and Lord Roberts fell on the Boer left.
We therefore made an early start, and were under way at 6.30, despite the severe cold, and, with the 19th Brigade leading, headed north-west, so as to come up on the left of Johannesburg. We spent the earlier part of the day marching and halting and moving on again, and watching the cavalry on our right, and the shrapnel and pom-pom shells bursting; until about two o'clock we were moved out from behind a hill, upon which was a battery busily engaged in shelling the enemy's guns, one or two of which were in position on some low hills about a mile and a half away. We lay down in the open grass with big intervals between companies. At the same time the City Imperial Volunteers had pushed on to the left of the guns, and the Derbyshire had also gone out in companies in widely extended order. And so we lay and watched and waited.
We were at the end of a long grassy valley, with smooth, rolling hills rising on our left and on our right, these latter separating us from Smith-Dorrien's Brigade; in front of us and blocking the end of the valley the hills swung round from the left and trended off to our right front, leaving a sort of gap in what might be called the right top corner of the picture; this we afterwards found to be the nearest way to Johannesburg. The smooth hills on our right rose gradually and ended in a cluster of rocks, surmounted by a solitary tree--an ideal position, in which we afterwards found that the enemy had a field gun, a Maxim and endless riflemen.
In front of us, the low hills which seemed to close in the valley, and indeed part of the valley itself, had suffered from a grass fire, and only an occasional ant-hill showed up grey against the black soil.
We had moved slightly to our right and had extended a little, and were again lying down in the grass; suddenly the enemy's guns spotted us and sent along a couple of shells, clear of us, luckily, but near enough to the lagging water-cart to make it increase its pace somewhat abruptly.
We had watched the C.I.V.'s pass out of sight along the ridge to the left, and then we had seen the Derbyshire moving along in the same direction. The enemy's gun, right in front of us, up the valley, we could with difficulty locate, but it was carrying on a plucky duel with our battery.
At last we got orders to move: D company led off first, followed by E, both in widely-extended lines, officers and all supernumeraries being in the ranks; and, with intervals of some 80 or 100 yards between the companies, after these followed F and G, and, behind them again, came H, the Volunteers, A, B and C. The Maxim gun went with the leading company, and, under charge of Captain Green, operated on its left. Soon after the companies led off they began to come under the long range fire of the Mausers, and the little spirts of dust were rapidly becoming more numerous as the lines of skirmishers diminished the distance between themselves and the enemy. At last it became necessary to subdue the enemy's eagerness somewhat, and the leading lines dropped down on the veldt and opened fire on the invisible Boers. After a while the skirmishers rose to their feet and advanced, whereupon the enemy's fire redoubled in intensity: regardless of the bullets, which were falling pretty thickly by now, a few men having been hit, our men pushed on, and, with the supporting lines which came up in rear, rapidly drew nearer to the enemy's position. Soon shots were observed to be coming from a new direction, from our right front, where, a long distance away, was the cluster of rocks and the solitary tree, which we had previously noticed as being a likely position for the enemy's sharpshooters.
After a little while there was no possible doubt upon this question, because, as our leading lines crept forward, the dropping shots from the right front became vastly more numerous, while one or two more casualties occurred. All this time the enemy on our front were keeping up a brisk rattle of musketry, but as our men were fully seven to ten paces apart this shooting had little effect upon them; not so however, the cross fire from our right front, which caught us diagonally, as it were, and caused a few more casualties. The machine-gun had come into action on the left, but was soon spotted by the Boers, who concentrated a pretty heavy fire on the unfortunate Maxim, which, with its big wheels, and the huge shields to the limber boxes sticking up in the air, provided the Boers with a target that they did not often get. Sergeant Funnell was shot in the head almost immediately the gun came into action, Archer and Hunnisett were knocked over, and only two men left to work the gun, which ceased firing for some minutes until Corporal Weston and two men from the nearest company, D, volunteered to assist. As it was so palpable that the enemy's fire was being concentrated on the gun, Captain Green ordered the detachment to lie down and use their rifles.
The wheel mule, an acquisition of the battalion dating from Bethulie (where the animal, a fine specimen of its kind, was found wandering in an ownerless state), was hit in two places, while the lead mule was so alarmed at this untoward accident to his stable companion, as to be quite petrified with fear and unable to move. When the advance took place he had to be abandoned, and the gun went on with "Bethulie" alone.
The leading companies had by now been reinforced by some of the supporting companies in rear, but had reached a limit from which further advance would not have been possible without very serious loss, so they lay down and blazed at the rocks and clumps of bushes which concealed the enemy. For some little distance now the advance had been carried out over the scene of the grass fire, which was even then still burning away on our right, and the only cover the men had was an occasional ant heap; but even this was but little protection from the stinging flanking fire which was whistling over from the right.
Noticing that the firing line seemed to be checked temporarily, and soon discovering the cause, an officer from the rear succeeded in turning the flank sections of F and G companies, together with some men of E company, and making a demonstration against our friends on One Tree Hill. These fellows, however, were quite wide awake, and made it hot for this small party, who were attempting to create a diversion in the state of affairs.
Their firing increased in intensity; Corporal Hollington and one or two others were shot, and our men, who were only about 800 yards from the position, soon abandoned the drill-book style of advancing by alternate sections (which only caused the enemy's fire to be doubled and redoubled as they gleefully took aim at the full-length figures of our soldiers), and continued their advance by crawling on their hands and knees through the long grass, and by keeping up a continued dropping fire on the rocks concealing our enemies. Not a single Boer had any of us seen since we started, and, at this stage of the proceedings, none of the enemy were likely to show themselves. Looking back, we could see heads behind us--a long way, certainly, but they showed that the Colonel had observed our flanking movement and had despatched a company to our support.
Emboldened by this, we pressed on, but our crawling progress through the grass was brought to a sudden end by our reaching the edge of a rapidly-advancing grass fire, while before us stretched a waste of burnt ground, with a few, a very few, grey ant heaps showing up. There was only one thing to do, and that was done quickly; springing to their feet, the two or three officers with this little party yelled to their men, who dashed on with shouts and cheers, through the flickering fire and the smoke, on to the bare ground beyond. They raced on rapidly, the faster runners outpacing the others, until breath began to go and knees to totter; and after a couple of hundred yards or so, we were glad to drop into a schanz, or long trench, which we found suddenly at our feet, and halt there to regain our breath.
We still kept up our fire, and the enemy's began to slacken, and at last almost ceased; there was no time to waste if we wanted to see a Boer, so we jumped out of the schanz and dashed on as fast as our heavy equipment and cumbrous roll of blanket would permit us towards the rocks, now silent as the grave.
Bearing off a little to the left to some slightly rising ground, we found ourselves alone; but what a sight was in front of us!
The ground dipped and rose again in a gentle slope of grassy fields with a rocky patch on the summit, about 1,100 or 1,200 yards away; and these grassy fields, about twenty or thirty acres in extent, were alive with fugitives moving rapidly towards the rear. Among them (and this is a curious circumstance which puzzled us not a little at the time and afterwards) were a number of mounted men, dashing furiously amongst the runaways. The sight of these riders careering wildly among a crowd of flying Boers stayed our volleys for some moments, while we overhauled the scene with our glasses. Could these mounted men be our cavalry suddenly appearing from the right flank, where we had left them?
No, they could surely not have travelled the distance in the time, so we formed up what men we had at hand and poured several volleys at 1,200 yards into the retreating enemy. After ten or a dozen volleys had been fired, a Highlander appeared among the rocks on our right, and, holding up his hand, shouted to us to stop firing. Wondering at this, reluctantly we complied, and the enemy quickly dwindled away; we had serious thoughts of following them rapidly, but, seeing how few men of ours were actually on the spot, and in view of the possibility that the Boers would hold the rocky patch on the summit, we decided against it, and proceeded to overhaul the rocks on our right, which but a short time before had been teeming with riflemen.
In a cunningly-selected nook was the spot where the enemy's gun had been at work; all round the ground was strewn with empty shell boxes, fifteen or twenty of them, and the grass was thick with the little cardboard boxes in which Mauser ammunition is issued. Several large tins still had a quantity of rusk biscuit remaining in them, but these soon disappeared into our fellows' haversacks; a few blankets were lying about, and the usual camp litter and rubbish showed that a party of some strength had had their head-quarters on that spot since the day before. Two or three dead horses were in the vicinity, and a couple of wounded ones were put out of their agony; while several others browsing on the short grass were quickly collared.
Ensconced among the rocks were two or three Boers, shot dead behind their cover by the bullets of our little flanking attack, as was proved conclusively by the attitudes of the bodies. All around, scattered in the most ingenious clefts among the rocks, were heaps and heaps of cartridge cases, Mauser, Lee-Metford, Steyr, and Martini, showing exactly the well-chosen positions of their former owners, and convincing us that thousands of our bullets might splash and splatter on the rocks close by without disturbing the occupants, until the fixing of the bayonets and the unrestrained advance of British soldiers caused that cold feeling down the back which no Boer could afford to disregard.
In a most ingeniously selected corner between several big rocks, improved by the addition of a few stones into a bullet-proof sangar, had been the enemy's Maxim, luckily for us not laid in our direction, but pumping forth lead against the attack of the Gordons, which, unknown to us, had been carried out on the other side of the ridge separating the two regiments. Apparently the dashing 800 yards' charge of the Gordons, in which they suffered such severe loss, had been taking place about the same time as our advance from the schanz, across the burnt grass; but whether it was our appearance so close to them, or the sight of the Gordons, so gallantly pushing on, which caused the enemy to retreat in such a hurry, none but the Boers themselves can decisively say.
Anyhow, we claim for the Royal Sussex the honour of being the first to reach One Tree Hill. When we originally rushed up to this spot, some few minutes were wasted in searching with glasses the crowd of flying Boers, one or two more minutes before men could be hastily gathered together on the knee ready to fire, and about a dozen volleys had been hurriedly got off before the Highlander, to whose appearance I have before alluded, came out from among the rocks and waved to us to stop firing.
Dusk was closing in, so we reformed the companies which had taken part in this attack on One Tree Hill; they were principally the flank sections of E, F, and G, with a few men of D and some of the rear company, C, who were following in our support; and we moved off to join the remainder of the battalion.
We found that they had been at first checked by the cross fire from One Tree Hill, and by a considerable fire directed on them from the front, but had held their own, pouring in a constant fire, until the pressure on the right weakened somewhat the intensity of the Boer musketry, and enabled our men to continue their advance over the bare, level, burnt up ground.
The advance became quicker and quicker, the men came up with a livelier step and at last could be restrained no longer, and, with cheers and yells, which were taken up by the supports in rear, they dashed up the slope.
Here, amongst the rocks on the summit, they found the usual signs of recent occupation, cartridge cases and so on, and traces of the gun, which had evidently been removed some time earlier, besides a number of loose ponies, whose owners had apparently been unable to ride or unwilling to waste time in mounting.
The companies then formed up and joined hands with those who had been engaged on the right; the rolls were called, and we moved off to find the Brigade, eventually discovering that our camp was to be just beyond One Tree Hill and practically on the field of action. Here in the dark we sat and waited for our baggage: no water, no wood was procurable, and we had eaten nothing except a scrap of biscuit since six o'clock that morning. Those who had husbanded their water during the day now scored, and, with what bits of wood they had secured from the Boer shell cases, and had since carried on their backs, soon had their canteens boiling.
Later, the baggage arrived, and the water carts, the contents of the latter being divided among the companies; and the men soon settled down, tired out and hungry, and dropped off to sleep among the piled arms.
 Our casualties were as follows:--
KILLED:-- Private J. Simmonds, D Co. " H. Braiden, G Co.
DIED OF WOUNDS:-- Corporal J. Hollington. Private W. Lucas. G. White. H. Wells,Vol. Co.
WOUNDED:-- Sergeant W. Funnell, C Co. Corporal W. Backshall B Co. Private J. Archer, C Co. C. Ellis, D Co. E. Honeysett. E. Cooper, E Co. T. Smith, F Co. G. Pelling. E. Colwell. G. Fuller, G Co. E. Young. A. Vitler, H Co. H. Wells, Vol. Co.