A midnight start--Column surprised from the flank--Stampede of the animals--Attack of the Boer position--The charge--Boer retreat--The Infantry follow--Final position--A gun comes up--The Cavalry do not appear--The scene of action.
No one was astonished on the 29th of October when we found ourselves at the station entraining again, and bound for our old destination, Ventersburg Road; this time the mule wagons went with us, and several trains were required to convey us all. The Camerons, half a battalion of the Buffs Militia and half a battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Militia went off first; we followed at eight o'clock, and after us came the battery and one of the five inch guns, of which there were two at Kroonstad. The General and his staff came down also by this train, and we camped once more to the west of the station. The Third Cavalry Brigade was there too, and also Captain Pine-Coffin, with his company of the Mounted Infantry from Malta; but not poor Lieut. Attfield, of the Derbyshire, who, to the great loss of his regiment and the service generally, had been killed in a skirmish with the Boers some time previously: a smarter or cleverer officer of his standing could not have been found.
Reveillé came at the preposterous hour of eleven o'clock at night, when we struck camp and loaded our wagons, marching off at midnight towards Ventersburg town; it was a darkish night with no moon, but the stars did their best to compensate for the absence of that luminary.
We moved in the following order, preceded by the Third Cavalry Brigade, who had gone out at eight o'clock that evening--first the Camerons, as advanced guard, then the battery and the five inch gun, after that the Buffs Militia, then the other Militia battalion, and lastly ourselves; each of these units was of course followed by its first line transport--ammunition carts, water carts, and so on, and the rear of all was brought up by the ambulances of the 20th Field Artillery. General Hunter was with us with his staff, but General Bruce Hamilton rode with the Camerons, who were stretched out to some considerable distance in front.
After crossing the drift (which took some time, as there was water in it and we had to get over by the stepping stones), we continued on our way with the usual halts until about four o'clock or so in the morning. It was then just commencing to get light, but it could hardly be called dawn; and we could distinguish on our left front a dark mass of rock-covered kopje, which lay broadside on to the road, but forming an angle with it, and joining it about a mile further on.
Thus from where we were to the top of the hill must have been at least a thousand yards, but the head of the column could not have been further off than six hundred yards or perhaps less: barring this ridge, which rose steeply out of the plain, the ground around us for a considerable distance was as flat as a table.
The Camerons had gone on some distance, and evidently reached as far as the place where the road dipped into a small valley among some broken hills, and we were still halted, when a Staff officer from General Hunter told me to send a company to occupy the kopje, which it appears was not picketed by the cavalry of the Third Brigade (as it should have been) or even by the Camerons; owing to a misunderstanding the flank on that side had been left completely alone.
So I nodded to Lieut. Hopkins, who was standing by me and had heard the General's order, and off he went with A company, which was then leading our half battalion; in rear of them, in order of march, came F company, under Captain Gilbert, then G and H, under Major Panton and Captain Wisden, and then a company of details, belonging to the other half battalion, which was commanded by Captain Blake.
We idly watched A company moving off in fours, a dark mass in the dim light, and I was wondering why Lieut. Hopkins did not extend his men, and was on the point of shouting to him to do so, when the thought came into my mind that it would be better to leave the company alone, as the officer knew quite well what he was doing, and would, no doubt, extend as he got closer to the foot of the hill.
They had gone about half way between us and the hill, and Lieut. Hopkins, as he told me afterwards, was just turning round to give the order to extend, when there was the sudden ping-boom of a solitary rifle from the top of the kopje, evidently a signal, as it was followed by a terrible outburst of musketry, somewhat similar to that at Reteif's Nek, but not so heavy.
I was watching A company at the time, and it was very curious to notice how they behaved under this crash of musketry, which spattered the ground all round them with bullets; at the distance it seemed as though the whole company staggered and shook like a field of wheat under a breeze; then instantly the whole were flat on the ground, and they commenced firing without a moment's hesitation. Evidently the orders given were prompt and to the point: the fluttering appearance, like a flock of pigeons just settling down in a field, was caused by the men moving outwards, some to the front, some to the back, to extend; the whole business was over in an instant, but it was very pleasant to see the men so prompt to do what they ought, and so smart in opening fire.
All this passed in the twinkling of an eye, and then we had other matters to attend to, in place of looking on; F company, now the leading one, had already faced the enemy, and were lying down, waiting for orders; and the remaining companies were soon doing the same, forming across the veldt at an angle to the road, and, when in position, opening fire over the heads of A company at the Boers on the sky line at about 1,100 yards range; there was nothing to be seen of the enemy, of course.
There was terrible confusion in front of us. All I could see was a confused mass of horses, bullocks, Cape carts and men moving swiftly and silently, like a great black river, down upon us; in the middle of all this was a water cart, tearing along with no drivers, and the six mules going all they knew; there was a mad bullock charging, head down, tail up, amongst the men, and there were loose horses everywhere.
It seems the battery had dismounted during the halt, and the men were lying down when the firing broke out. The Major of the battery was shot dead at once by the first discharge, and several horses were killed and wounded; instantly, however, one of the gun detachments unlimbered, swung the gun round and got off a shot at the Boers; but by this time there was a regular stampede going on amongst the animals, which were all rushing back on us to get out of the dreadful fire, and the fearful noise and echoing of rifle shots, which were incessant.
In the battery, several men were run over and seriously injured by bolting wagons, one of the latter travelling several miles before it was brought back; the team of oxen had swung round with the heavy five inch gun and had smashed the pole, two bullocks had been killed and several injured; the escort to the battery were apparently men of the Argyll and Sutherland Militia, and they lay down and opened fire.
By this time (and all the foregoing happened in a few seconds), our companies were all extended across the veldt, stretching away from the road, and were parallel to and about a thousand yards from the hill occupied by the enemy, at the skyline of which we were firing.
It was still dark, but momentarily growing lighter and lighter, and our men were blazing away steadily, when Captain Ross, the Divisional Signalling officer, came down with an order from General Hunter for the Royal Sussex to charge the hill.
That was all the Royal Sussex were waiting for: the whistle blew, and the whole line rose to their feet, and rushed wildly across the open ground, a few bullets dropping in front of us; yelling, cheering and cursing, and fixing bayonets as they ran, this wild mob kept on until want of breath necessitated a halt. A moment or two to fill their lungs, and on they dashed again, until checked by a wire fence, A company well in front with the start they had got, and young Wadwicz leading the way; but Cox, of F company, showing us that the reserve man was the best of all. The enemy's fire had ceased as suddenly as it had begun; some of us had our hearts in our mouths as, checked for a moment, we clambered over the barbed wires, dreading momentarily that the Boers were only holding their fire until we were mixed up in the fencing.
Not so, however; the fixing of the bayonets and the sudden onslaught of the long line was too much for their nerves, and they were off; panting and blowing after our long run of a thousand yards, we saw them when we reached the summit, going like smoke in the distance, in two directions; our men did not stop on the summit, but pushed on to gain the next hill.
There was a valley between, about a thousand yards wide, and, beyond, the ridge rose in a smooth slope, extending a long way both to the right and the left; on the left it continued, forking out into two spurs, which ran outwards, that on the left culminating in a lofty, round-topped hill, while that on the right continued round in a half circle. Our party now divided, Major Panton going towards the round hill on the left with two companies, while the remainder pushed on to the smooth ridge straight to our front.
We had opened fire at 800 and 1,000 yards from the top of the hill which we had charged, on the small parties of the Boers, evidently lagging behind the others; one of these men was dismounted, and our bullets hastened his movements considerably, until he disappeared out of sight over the ridge; and we had then pushed on in the hopes of catching him and his friends on the other side. One party of the enemy had gone off towards the round-topped hill on the left, and the horse of one of them, hit at 900 yards, had collapsed in a cloud of dust, so Major Panton and his two companies tore after his rider.
While ascending the ridge in front, orders were received not to go any further, so we crept up to the top of the hill and lined the crest; the order was passed along to the companies, now a long way on our left, to do likewise.
Then we had leisure to look about us and fill up our ammunition pouches; it was now about half-past four, and the sun was just thinking of showing himself above the horizon; behind us, coming over the hill, were some companies of the Buffs Militia; in front of us was a huge valley, and beyond, on a small plateau, lay the town of Ventersburg; on our right, a long way off, perhaps a mile and a half, was a small group of mounted men and some infantry, with whom signalling communication was opened, and who proved to be General Bruce Hamilton and his staff and escort, and some of the Camerons. Information was sent to me that the Third Cavalry Brigade was in Ventersburg town, right in rear of the party of the enemy who had fired on us. This news filled us with amazement; what were they doing there, and why had they not tried to cut off the fleeing enemy, some of whom had bolted directly towards them?
In a few minutes up dashed a gun of the 39th Field Battery, under the gallant old sergeant-major; sharp and rapid were his orders, and quickly he asked where to place his shells. I pointed out the range of hills to the left front, right in the eye of the fast rising sun and well away from the town (which I knew it was useless to shell even if the cavalry had not been there), and the shrapnel rapidly began to burst along the circular ridge 3,000 yards in front, searching the reverse slopes. Soon a message, transmitted from the cavalry in the town, arrived, asking the gun to stop firing as the shells had dropped near to them; and so our little fight was all over. Evidently the cavalry were not in the town, as they had said before--although, if they were outside, their conduct in not pursuing the enemy was quite inexplicable.
Our bag was small: three horses, two rifles, and a Boer's hat; but, Lord knows, we ran hard enough and deserved more success. Our casualties were nil, to my great wonder and thankfulness: how A company escaped was a marvel, as the ground round them was covered with spirts of dust from dropping bullets until the advance commenced.
After a while, leaving a company on the top of the round hill, we re-formed and moved down towards the General, camping shortly afterwards close by.
It seems the Camerons' advanced guard had crossed the drift and reached the hill, in rear, but a long way to the right, of the enemy's position, and had seen them in the dim light bolting like hares a long way off, and had fired a few volleys at 2,500 yards; but the range was too great and the light too dull to do any good.
Lieut. Nelson, who was acting as Assistant Provost Marshal on the General's staff, had had a narrow escape; he was riding towards the column after the firing began with an order, when he was promptly fired on by some of our troops, and, notwithstanding his shouts and the waving of his helmet, the firing did not cease: so he had to bolt without delivering his message.
Walking over the scene of action the next day, it was interesting to place oneself in the Boer positions, and to notice how admirably they were selected, and what perfect protection from our fire was afforded by the stone walls from behind which they had opened such a galling fire upon the column. Their horses were well placed behind the hill, and, from the traces on the ground, could not have been there more than a few hours at the most; from twenty-five to thirty men must have been employed, and these had posted themselves behind the stone walls (old sheep and cattle kraals), with which the summit of the spur was entirely covered.
Their actual positions were revealed by the presence of their cartridge cases, which showed that four kinds of rifles had been used--Mauser, Lee-Metford, Martini and Stehr--and the Boers themselves were so perfectly concealed and so widely distributed that our column might have remained all day, firing with guns and rifles at the kopje, without disabling more than one or two of the enemy.
Apparently the enemy's picket on the hill could not see the Camerons passing along (it was dark then, and they were well spread out), or else the Boers intended to devote all their energies to stampeding the battery and the five inch-gun.
Going down into the plain, the positions taken up by the men of A company, when they were suddenly fired upon, were revealed by the little heaps of cartridge cases, showing that the men had thrown themselves down from five to ten paces apart, in line, and with another line of men some little distance in rear, evidently the rear half company. The number of cases in each pile averaged about twenty or twenty-five, several men having fired as many as thirty-two; but a weak point was revealed by the number of unexpended cartridges lying about, as many as thirty-one in one particular spot. This is accounted for partly by the rounds falling out of the pouches when they are opened and the men are lying down; but there is also another reason--the men have a habit, a natural one too, of drawing out a handful of rounds and laying them on the ground to be handy for use; and when a sudden advance is made these rounds are forgotten. As the clip system of loading is pretty sure to be adopted without delay, there is no reason for harping upon the disadvantages of our pouches and our custom of single loading.
There were a number of dead oxen lying about, and two dead horses, one belonging to Major Hanwell, which had been shot at the same time as that unfortunate officer, and the other belonging to an officer of General Hunter's staff; while far away, more than half a mile off, were some dead mules.
Major Hanwell was buried the same afternoon in the little cemetery of the town; he was a smart soldier, and well known in Poona and Bombay.