Leeuwspruit--Bethlehem--De Wet surrounded--Ridley goes to Slabbert's Nek--De Wet already through--Meyer's Kop---Rifle Positions--Inefficiency of shrapnel--Necessity of adapting tactics to those of the enemy--A looted store.
We marched out of Reitz on the 13th of July, and camped at Hartebeeste Hoek about dusk, experiencing an icy cold night with a very heavy frost: the companies on picket suffered severely, as there was no wood to be got in the neighbourhood. Our march the next day to Leeuwspruit, just outside Bethlehem, was very trying indeed: there was a strong wind blowing from our front, and clouds of dust gathered up from the burnt up veldt stung our faces and filled our eyes and mouths. There was not a patch of grass anywhere, nothing but black ground for miles: the battery on this occasion, with unusual want of thought, persisted in marching on the windward side, every now and then raising up great clouds of dust, which came rolling over to us like black smoke from a huge fire. It is difficult and trying for horses, which walk faster than men, to keep in rear of a battalion of infantry, and for this reason a careful battery commander tries to get on the flank of infantry; but when the wind is blowing from that flank, it is very uncomfortable for the foot soldiers.
We halted a day and a half at Leeuwspruit, and left that place at three o'clock in the afternoon on the 16th of July for Bethlehem, reaching the town at dusk and halting for orders on the outskirts. The Camerons received orders to remain at Bethlehem with the G.O.C., the Headquarters of the Brigade, the Supplies and the Field Hospital; but we were directed to fill up our wagons with several days' rations and to proceed with Major Simpson's battery, the 81st to a farm called Sevastopol, lying somewhat to the south west. We waited a couple of hours while our wagons went off to draw rations, which were all over the place--biscuit in one camp, tea and sugar in the town--and eventually we got away, at 8.30 p.m., in pitch darkness. We led out through the town looking still and ghostly in the dark and up a steep and terribly sandy road, which tried our overloaded wagons to the utmost, until at last we reached the open veldt, where the road was hard, and clear from rocks and sand. On the top of this hill we had a long wait, while the wagons were closed up: we lay down and tried to keep warm, but the cold was too intense, and finally the whole battalion had to stand up and move about to keep their blood circulating. So we went on, halting every now and then to allow the lagging wagons to close up, until at last at the top of a sudden drop into a valley our advanced guard was challenged by a picket, whom we found to belong to Ridley's Mounted Infantry, camped about a mile further on.
It seems that news had been received that De Wet, who was almost surrounded by Hunter's and Rundle's Divisions and was shut up inside the cordon of hills enclosing the Caledon Valley (access to which was only to be obtained by certain passes which were watched by several Brigades), was suspected of an intention to break out; and we had been packed off in a hurry to guard Ridley's baggage and rations while he dashed off towards Slabbert's Nek, one of these passes, to intercept De Wet in case he tried to break out in that direction.
At half past two in the morning we formed up in the valley, posted pickets and got some sleep; but at half-past five we were on the move again. Ridley had gone off at daybreak, taking his baggage with him, so we started and marched about four miles, and then halted by the roadside near Meyer's Kop, for further orders. In the distance, another four miles on, rose the hills surrounding the Caledon Valley: we could just distinguish the break in the range leading to the pass or Nek, which was somewhat inside the fringe of low-lying hills. Four miles to the south could be seen the camp and tents of General Paget's Brigade, with which signalling communication was opened. A signal station was also established on the top of Meyer's Kop, and communication opened with Conical Hill, a sugar loaf peak about five miles south of Bethlehem. Orders were received in the afternoon from General Hunter, who was then in Bethlehem, directing us to remain at Meyer's Kop for the present; so the Colonel selected a site for a camp, and we settled down in a valley close under this kopje, bivouacing on a dirty piece of blackened, burnt up ground, which was the cleanest that could be found.
The force under Lieut.-Colonel Donne's command consisted of our battalion, the 81st Battery, a few local irregulars of Prince Alfred's Guards, and, later, some of the Lovat Scouts.
We heard afterwards that De Wet had succeeded in breaking out of Slabbert's Nek before we arrived, passing within a mile of where we were then camped, and had gone off with 1,200 men and no wagons, only Cape carts, in the direction of the railway. All our available Mounted Infantry, under General Ridley, had hurried after him, and General Broadwood, with his cavalry, had snatched up the Derbyshire regiment to look after his baggage and had hastened off in the same direction. The futility of chasing mounted men with a force dependent for their supplies on wagons escorted by infantry was soon apparent, and, as is now a matter of history, De Wet succeeded in making good his escape, and led our troops a dance which lasted for months, and covered the greater part of the Orange River Colony.
Our energies were now concentrated on keeping the remainder of the Boer commandos inside the Caledon Valley, exit from which could only be obtained from the passes at Ficksburg, Slabbert's Nek, Retief's Nek, Naauwpoort Nek and Golden Gate; these were watched--at Ficksburg by Rundle, who was advancing up the Caledon Valley towards Fouriesburg; by Paget's Brigade and ourselves at Slabbert's Nek; by Hector Macdonald's Highland Brigade at Retief's Nek; and by Bruce Hamilton, who with the remains of his Brigade was advancing towards Naauwpoort Nek; but, as regards Golden Gate, which was not passable for wagons, it would appear that this pass was not watched by any of our troops.
Meyer's Kop was a rock of extraordinary shape. Imagine a huge sugar loaf, which had been cut in half horizontally, so that the lower half formed a great truncated cone, and then stick this up in the centre of a level plain, and you have a fair idea of what this kopje, at whose base we bivouacked for six days, looked like. There was a certain amount of débris and many huge rocks scattered around the base of the kopje; its sides were quite perpendicular except on the north, where there was a winding path by which access might be had to the summit. The top was almost flat, one enormous table-top of rock, about 80 yards across and full of huge pot holes, which in ages gone by had been washed out by the action of water.
There were numerous other kopjes similar to this one in the neighbourhood, and it is easy to conceive how, at one time, all the surrounding country had been at the bottom of the sea, and how it had risen gradually, the pinnacles of rock like Meyer's Kop, all scored and washed clean by the rushing water, appearing first out of the sea. At one corner of the rock, on the top, were piles and piles of cartridge cases, Mauser, Lee-Metford and Martini, lying in little heaps in places which showed us how each Boer marksman had taken up his position, concealed behind most excellent cover, whence to shoot down from his point of vantage our soldiers as they advanced across the open plain beneath or showed themselves over the rising ground, at points of which every Boer of course knew the range. To these men, each snug in his little nook among the rocks, our rifle fire would have no terrors, as our bullets would whizz harmlessly over their heads, even if aimed in their direction--an unlikely event, for the chances would be hundreds to one that the Boers would never be spotted as long as they used cordite.
Shell fire also would cause no trepidation to a Boer well posted behind cover; but I doubt if he would have been so happy, or would even have remained so long behind his cover, had he been exposed to the old fashioned shell fire from mortars, where the projectiles, fired at a high angle with a varying charge of powder, sailed slowly and gracefully, humming to themselves, through the air, their track marked by a thin stream of blue smoke from the burning fuse; and then, dropping quietly immediately in rear of the enemy's parapet or into his trenches, burst into hundreds of fragments and spread devastation around.
Something of that kind is what has been wanted in the class of warfare which we have been carrying on lately with the Afridis and the Boers, i.e. against a much scattered enemy, invisibly and securely posted behind rocks, and armed with the latest development in small bore rifles.
Shrapnel is all very well when used against an enemy in a formation like quarter-column, and its moral effect is at all times good; but its killing powers against a thin line of skirmishers, say ten paces apart, advancing across a plain or posted on a ridge are limited to the width of front to which its 256 bullets will, on the explosion of the bursting charge, extend, and are about equal to the damage which might be done by, perhaps, two rifles. The trajectory of a shell is too flat to cause any harm to a Boer or an Afridi behind a rock.
At Meyer's Kop the rocks on the east had received a vigorous shelling on one occasion from our guns, and it interested some of us to potter about, looking at the marks on the rocks and ground that showed where the shells had struck, picking up shrapnel bullets and fragments of iron, trying to estimate the number of shells fired, and examining the ground to see where the enemy's sharpshooters had been lying.
On this particular occasion (I don't know when it occurred or what troops of ours had been engaged), the ground on the slope of, and below the eastern side of the kopje, was covered, over a large area, with shrapnel bullets and bits of shell; and the large prominent boulders, some of them as big as haystacks, bore marks where shells had struck in numbers; but, away up on a corner of the kopje, fifty yards off, were at least 500 cartridge cases, showing where some three or four men had lain in perfect security and had kept up a harassing fire in spite of our shrieking shell, and the whistling but inoffensive bullets from our bursting shrapnel.
They had played the Boer game, which the introduction of smokeless cordite had rendered so easy; they had studiously avoided all the prominent objects behind which one would naturally expect to find an enemy, and had selected other places on the flanks, from which to pour in, unobserved, their annoying and ceaseless fire, whilst our advancing troops blazed away, and continued to blaze away, at the top of the hills, at green bushes, and at any stone walls in the neighbourhood, instead of impartially searching with their fire the slopes of all the hills in their front, or watching the spirts of dust thrown up by the Boer bullets and trying to discover from these indications the direction whence the fire was coming and the probable location of the marksman.
These are all points which, unfortunately, can only be learned when bullets are flying around, but a very little instruction in this goes a tremendously long way; and when skirmishing is again introduced, as it must inevitably be, into the curriculum of instruction we give our infantry soldiers in peace time, no doubt more attention will be paid to the question of adapting your system of warfare to meet that of your enemy. The invading force which enters an enemy's country is, to my mind, entirely at the mercy of and eventually forced to adopt, any system of warfare which may be thrust upon it by the owners of the country; thus, a widely scattered enemy must be met by our thin clouds of skirmishers: changes of position rapidly carried out by an enemy entirely mounted must be checkmated by our strong bodies of mounted infantry: the withdrawal, when pressed by us, of the enemy to a previously selected position must be met by our timely flanking movements: the invitation by the enemy to a frontal attack over a suspiciously open piece of country must be met by an attack delivered somewhere else.
In fact, whatever the enemy obviously wishes us to do, must not be done, lest we be drawn into a trap; and above all nothing must ever be taken for granted. I am fully aware that these axioms are as old as the hills, and that every soldier is supposed to absorb them with his military milk in his infancy as a recruit; but I am afraid that he does not assimilate enough of this particular kind of diet.
Many are the instances, some of them microscopic, some of them serious, which I have seen of the neglect of the golden rule--take nothing for granted; and I might also add to this rule another, namely--never despise your enemy--to which the attention of all amateur soldiers might be drawn when they next race off in the direction of any campaign which may be threatening.
This queer Meyer's Kop made an excellent helio station from which signalling communication was easily maintained to the north and south; and it was also a first-rate observation post, from which the surrounding country for miles round could be seen. One of the officers was usually on watch up there from daylight to dark, and it was really a very pleasant way of spending three or four hours on a fine day. Sometimes we could see what we thought were Boers riding about on the sky line, and we used to especially watch the entrance to Slabbert's Nek, in the hopes of seeing some of the enemy moving about. Once or twice we went out with a few men and some wagons to procure forage from the farm of an Englishman named Passmore, a horsebreeder and trainer, and a jockey well known at Johannesburg, who had a run near us, but who had had to bolt when the Boers arrived in the neighbourhood. This man had opened a small store on his property, but when we arrived we found that it had been carefully looted. I never saw such confusion as there was; nearly everything had been torn down or off the shelves and thrown promiscuously on to the floor; things looked as though a whole troop of monkeys had been allowed a free hand for half an hour or so. Only once have I seen anything approaching such a state of matters, and that was years ago, when Captain Farrell's pet monkey was accidentally shut up in his master's quarters for a couple of hours; and the havoc that monkey, who was of an enquiring turn of mind, played with writing table, dressing table, chest of drawers, and tin uniform cases may be better imagined than described.
Passmore's store however had been visited, it was suspected, by Kaffirs and not by Boers. It was a curious circumstance, noticed by one of our officers with a Sherlock Holmes disposition, that all the tins, of which there were a number containing mustard, medicines, pepper, linseed, ginger and other things, had a small opening, roughly made, evidently to enable the contents to be examined. Now, no white man would have gone to the trouble of doing this, even if he couldn't have read the label, which was plain enough in every case.
G and H Companies were sent in with wagons, on the 20th of July, to Bethlehem, to draw another supply of rations and to get the mails, sixty-three bags of which were waiting for us. They returned the next day in the afternoon, together with the Bedfordshire regiment, who camped alongside of us, but left the next evening to join Paget's Brigade, which was only a few miles away.
The Bedfords, who had been equipped earlier in the campaign than we had, when things were more plentiful, were very well provided as regards transport. They had plenty of wagons, Scotch carts, ammunition carts and water carts, while we were still limited to the one water cart with which we originally started, and the two old Scotch carts, procured at a farm, which we utilised to carry some of our reserve ammunition. The four ammunition and other carts we had brought from home had been left at Glen for want of mules to draw them.