Just below Graspan Station the Boers had made one of their many attempts to wreck the line. They had torn up the metals and the sleepers, and a good many bent and twisted rails lay beside the permanent way. But this sort of injury to a railway is very speedily set right. In an hour or two a party of sappers can relay a long stretch of line if no culverts or bridges are destroyed. Mishaps to the telegraph are still more easily repaired, and already, side by side with the wreckage of the original wires, the piebald posts of the field telegraph service ran all along the lines of communication.
Here and there Kaffir families sat squatting about their primitive huts, or kept watch over flocks of goats and sheep. Ostriches stalked solemnly up to the railway and gazed at the train, and sometimes their curiosity cost them the loss of a few tail feathers if we could get a snatch at them through the wire railings. On one occasion a soldier attempting to take this liberty with an ostrich was turned upon by the indignant bird, and a struggle ensued which might have proved serious to the man; he was, however, lucky enough to get a grip on the creature's neck and succeeded by a great effort in killing it. Ordinarily, however, the ostriches, despite an occasional surrender of tail feathers, lived on terms of amity with our men, and at Belmont they were to be seen walking about the camp and concealing their curiosity under a great show of dignity. During the fight one of these birds took up its quarters with a battery, and watched the whole battle without taking any food, except that on one occasion when a man lit his pipe the bird suddenly reached out for the box of lucifers and swallowed it with great gusto.
It was curious to notice a variety of chalk marks upon some of the ant hills on the battle-field. The Boers had carefully measured their ground beforehand, as we did at Omdurman, and knew exactly how to adjust their sights as we advanced against their position. The battle of Graspan consisted, as at Belmont, in a frontal attack upon a line of kopjes held by a much larger force of the enemy than was present at the earlier engagement. Lord Methuen succeeded in working his way to the foot of the kopjes, and a final rush swept the Boers away in headlong flight. His victory would have been much more complete had the cavalry succeeded in cutting off the enemy's retreat, but this was not done.
We brought back a load of wounded men from this fight. The corps which suffered most heavily was the naval brigade, composed of 200 marines and 50 bluejackets. It is worth mentioning the numbers here, because I have seen several accounts of this fight in which the gallantry of the "bluejackets" is spoken of in the warmest terms with absolutely no mention of the marines. Correspondents, some of them without any previous knowledge of military matters, repeatedly single out certain regiments and corps for special mention, even when these favoured battalions have not taken any leading part in the battle. We have, of course, had the case of the Gordons at Dargai—who ever hears of any other regiment popularly mentioned in this connection? Again, at the battle of Magersfontein the Gordons were not amongst the Highland battalions which bore the full brunt of that awful fusilade, yet various English newspapers singled them out for special mention. I speak in this way not because I am at all lacking in appreciation for the valour and dash of both Gordons and "bluejackets," but simply because other regiments who have often done as good or even better work—in special cases—bitterly resent the unfair manner in which their own achievements are sometimes slurred over in the press. Needless to say these thoughtless reports are due almost entirely to journalists and would be repudiated by none more keenly than the gallant men of the Gordon Highlanders and the Royal Navy.
At the battle of Graspan the marine brigade left their big 47 guns in the rear and advanced as infantry to the frontal attack. At 600 yards from the Boer lines the order was given to fix bayonets: the brigade then pushed forward for fifty yards further, when it was met by a storm of Mauser bullets, which had killed and wounded no less than 120 out of the 250 before the survivors reached the foot of the kopjes. It is extremely difficult to clamber up the rough sides of an African kopje. To do it properly one needs india-rubber soles or bare feet, for boots cause one to slip wildly about on the smooth, rough stones. By the time our men had got to the summit of the low ridge the Boers had leapt upon their horses and were already nearly 1,000 yards away. Our gallant fellows were out of breath with the arduous climb, and as it is almost impossible to do much effective shooting when one is "blown," and the cavalry had not appeared on the scene, the enemy got off nearly scot free.
Amongst a number of wounded men brought down by our train from Modder River was a private of that fine corps, the R.M.L.I., who had, after passing through the perils of Graspan, suffered an extraordinary casualty at the Modder River fight. He was standing near one of the 47 guns which was firing Lyddite shells at the enemy's trenches. Suddenly the force of the explosion burst the drum of his right ear and, of course, rendered him stone deaf on that side. He was an excellent fellow, very intelligent and well informed, and I hope by this time the surgeons at Simon's Bay naval hospital have provided him with an artificial ear-drum. This marine had, as said above, come out of the awful fire at Graspan unscathed, but I counted no less than five bullet holes in his uniform; two of them were through his trousers, two had pierced his sleeves, and the other had passed through his coat just to the left of his heart!
The kopjes which were ultimately carried by the gallantry of our troops at Graspan had been subjected to an awful shell fire before the infantry attack. Nevertheless, the enemy was able to meet the advance with a rifle fire which swept our men down by scores. On the right of the naval brigade there was a little group of nineteen men, of these one only remained! The Boers exhibited here, as elsewhere, the most marvellous skill in taking advantage of cover. These farmers lay curled up behind their stones and boulders while shrapnel bullets by thousands rained over their position, and common shell threw masses of earth and rock into the air. Then at the moment when the artillery fire was compelled to cease, owing to the near approach of our infantry, the crafty sharp-shooters crawled out of their nooks and crannies and used their rifles with deadly precision and rapidity.
On this point—the general ineffectiveness of artillery fire when the enemy possesses good cover—the history of modern warfare repeats itself. The Russian bombardments of Plevna were quite futile, and General Todleben acknowledged that it sometimes required a whole day's shell fire to kill a single Turkish soldier. At the fight round the Malaxa blockhouse in Crete, at which I was present, the united squadrons of the European powers in Suda Bay suddenly opened fire on the hill and the village at its foot. In ten minutes from eighty to one hundred shells came screaming up from the bay and burst amongst the insurgents and their Turkish opponents. We all of us—on the hill and in the village—bolted like rabbits and took what cover we could. The total net casualties from these missiles—some of them 6-inch shells—were, I believe, three, all told.
Some of those amateur critics at home who write indignant letters about the War Office labour under a twofold delusion. They frequently ask indignantly how it is that our guns have been outclassed by those of the Boers? As a matter of fact in almost every engagement of the present campaign our artillery has been superior to that of the enemy; but, of course, the artillery of a defending force, well posted on rising ground, possesses enormous advantages over that of the assailants, who have frequently to open fire in open and exposed positions easily swept by shrapnel fire from guns, which, hidden amid trenches and rocks, are often well-nigh invisible.
Another fundamental error in many of the indignant letters about the alleged defects of our artillery arises from a misunderstanding of the real value of guns in attacking a fortified position. The most sanguine officer never expects his shells actually to kill or disable any very large number of the enemy if they are protected by deep and well-constructed earthworks. Of course, if a shell falls plump into a trench it is pretty certain to play havoc with the defenders, but, when one considers that the mouth of a trench is some five or six feet wide, it is easy to realise the difficulty of dropping a shell into the narrow opening at a range, say, of 4,000 yards. Moreover, some of the more elaborate Boer trenches are so cleverly constructed in a waving line like a succession of S's, that even if a shell does succeed in pitching into one bit of the curve it makes things uncomfortable only for the two or three men who occupy that portion of the earthwork. No, the real value of artillery in attack is to shake the enemy and keep down his rifle fire. If shells are accurately fired the tops of trenches may be swept by a constant rain of shrapnel bullets, under which the enemy's riflemen will of necessity suffer when they expose their heads and shoulders to take aim over the parapet. But even in this case the shell fire must be extremely accurate if it is to be of any great use. If shrapnel shells burst well, some thirty yards in front of the enemy, the force of the bullets released by the explosion is terrific; if, on the other hand, the shells burst high up in the air, 150 yards in front, you might almost keep off the bullets with an umbrella; and one sometimes hears of these missiles being actually found in the pockets of combatants. At Omdurman our shells played tremendous havoc with the dense masses of the enemy; but here the Dervishes advanced to the attack in broad daylight and over a flat plain absolutely devoid of cover, and with its "ranges" well known and marked out beforehand.
In one of our southward journeys with a load of wounded men we passed, a little below Graspan, through the midst of a swarm of locusts. We pulled up the windows and so kept the wards free from these clumsy insects. At one period they seemed to almost shut out the daylight, and it was easy to realise how unpleasant it would be to meet a flight of locusts when walking or even riding on horseback. Some odd stories are told about these creatures. I have heard it gravely stated that occasionally a train is stopped by the accumulated masses which fall on the metals. My informant evidently believed that the engine in these cases was absolutely unable to force its way through the piled up insects, in the same way as trains are sometimes blocked by gigantic snowdrifts! This, of course, is ridiculous; what really happens is that the rails become so greasy from the crushed bodies of the locusts that the wheels can secure no grip on the metals and spin round to no purpose.
The attitude of the Boers towards the locust is very quaint. If a swarm of these insects settles on a Dutchman's land, the owner will not attempt to destroy them because he regards them as a visitation of Providence. But I have heard that he does not scruple to modify slightly the schemes of Providence by shovelling the unwelcome locusts upon any of his neighbours' fields which may adjoin his own estate!
On this same journey we pulled up, as usual, for a brief interval at De Aar, and just opposite our train was a carriage containing seventeen Boer prisoners, returning to the front. At the battle of Graspan a number of Boer artillerymen were found with the Geneva Red Cross on their arms, and it seems pretty clear that these men had deliberately slipped the badge on the sleeves in order to avoid capture. They were, of course, at once secured and treated as ordinary prisoners of war. But in the hurry of the moment, and very naturally under the circumstances, some seventeen of the Boers who were bonâ-fide ambulance men were arrested on suspicion and despatched with the crafty gunners to Capetown. Here they were examined, and when the authorities realised that they were genuinely entitled to the protection of the Red Cross, and were not combatants fraudulently equipped with this protective badge, the seventeen were forthwith sent back to General Cronje. As they were returning we met them and had a chat with them. Five at least of the number were Scotchmen or Irishmen; two more of them did not speak, and I rather think from their appearance that they too were of English race, and preferred to remain silent. Several of them complained of ill-treatment at our hands, but I must say their complaints appeared to resolve themselves into the fact that on their journeys to and from Capetown their meals had not been quite regular. Three of us gave them some bread, jam and cigarettes, for which they were extremely grateful. They wore ordinary clothes much the worse for wear, and told me that they left their "Sunday" suits at home. On the whole I was most favourably impressed by these fellows, with one exception. The exception was a Free-Stater who spoke English volubly. He loudly declared that he was sick of the war and intended the moment he secured an opportunity to desert and go home to his farm. I felt rather indignant at this person's remarks, and with an air of moral superiority I said: "We don't think any the better of you for saying that; although you are an enemy you ought to stick to your General, and not sneak away from the front". But the Free-Stater was not a bit impressed by my rhetoric, and simply said, "Oh, skittles!"
Some of the prisoners were from the Transvaal and they seemed to me much more keen and enthusiastic than their Free State companions, and evinced no signs whatever of despondency or depression. There was a very pathetic note in the conversation of one of the Transvaalers, a mere boy of seventeen. He said to me in broken English, "It is such a causeless war. What are we fighting for, sir?" and I referred him for his answer to three Johannesburg Uitlanders who were standing by. Accursed as war always is, it is thrice accursed when young boys and old men are called upon to fight. At present every man in the Republic from sixteen to sixty years of age is at the front. The authorities intend as their losses increase to call out children from twelve to sixteen, and every old man from sixty onwards who can still see to sight a rifle. Last and most terrible thought of all, it is an undoubted fact that wives and daughters are everywhere throughout the Republic engaged in rifle practice! May God preserve us from having to fight against women! At present entire families are fighting together. I know one Dutch lady who has no less than six brothers amongst the burghers who have been fighting round Ladysmith, and another who has already lost four sons in the war. In one of our engagements a Boer boy of seventeen was struck down by a bullet; the father, a man of sixty, left his cover and went to the succour of his son, when he himself was shot, and the two lay dead, one beside the other.
A little to the north of the kopjes which formed the scene of the Graspan engagement lies the station of Enslin. Here one of the pluckiest fights of the campaign took place. Two companies of the Northamptons occupied a small house and orchard beside the line. They had thrown up a hurried earthwork and placed rails along the top of the parapet. In this position they were suddenly attacked by a force of apparently 500 Boers—so it was supposed—with one or two field guns. The small garrison lined their diminutive trenches and succeeded in keeping the enemy off for several hours; but had not some artillery reinforcements come up the line most opportunely to their assistance it might have fared badly with the plucky Northamptons. As it was, the Boers finally withdrew with some loss. On December 10th we were delayed for some time at Enslin by an accident and I had a careful look at the position held by our men in this minor engagement. There was scarcely a twig or leaf in the orchard which was not torn by shrapnel and Mauser bullets. The walls of the house were chipped and pierced in every direction, and one corner of the earthwork had been carried off by a shell. Yet in the two companies there were only eight casualties! An almost parallel case was furnished by Rostall's orchard at Modder River, which was held by the Boers, and swept for hours by so fearful a fire of shrapnel that the peach-trees were cut down in every direction and scarcely a square foot behind the trenches unmarked by the leaden hail. Nevertheless, when the guns had perforce to cease fire on the advance of our infantry, the Boers who held the orchard leapt up from behind the earthwork and poured such a murderous fire upon our men that they were forced to withdraw. It was the old story over again—that shell fire, unless it enfilades, does not kill men in trenches.
As everybody called the river crossed by the railway the Modder, Modder let it be. Its real name, however, is the Riet, of which the Modder is a tributary flowing from the north-west and joining the main stream well to the east of the line. As a stream the river does not impress the visitor favourably: its waters were yellow and muddy, and the vegetation on its banks was thin and scrappy. There are no respectable fish in either the Modder or the Orange River; even if the fish could see a fly on the top of the liquid mud, they haven't the spirit to rise at it. Some of our officers, it was said, had managed to land a few specimens of a coarse fish like a barbel which haunts these streams, but I should not think any one, even amid the monotony of camp rations, was very keen about eating his catch, for a good many dead Boers had been dragged out of the river. It was, in fact, a rather grisly joke in camp to remark, à propos of our water supply, on the character of "Château Modder, an excellent vintage with a good deal of body in it"! There was a tap at the station, which by the way is some distance north of the river, but on attempting to fill a bucket I found the tap guarded by a sentry, because, apparently, the water came from the river and was thought to be dangerous.
The water question is always a difficult one in exploring or campaigning. One can do a certain amount with alum towards rendering the water less foul. Rub the inside of a bucket with a lump of alum, and in ten minutes most of the mud sinks to the bottom, and the water is comparatively clear. But besides producing a nasty flavour in the water, if used in any quantity, the astringent alum tends to produce disagreeable effects internally. Of course the only absolute guarantee against the bacilli of enteric fever or other diseases which may be admitted into one's system by drinking, is to boil the waters for five minutes; but it is very provoking, when the thermometer stands at 90° in the shade, to wait until the boiled water cools, and as it is impossible to boil a whole river a few thousand bacilli may quite well get into our food through "washing up".
The Boers have almost raised trench digging to the level of a fine art, and on every occasion when their commandants have found it necessary to withdraw they have had an entrenched position ready for them at some distance in the rear. At Modder River the trenches on either side of the stream were, as far as I saw them, a series of short ditches holding about six riflemen. These small trenches were separated from each other in order possibly to avoid that appearance of continuity which would have rendered their detection more easy to our scouts. In the Modder River fight a new factor is noticeable. For the first time in the campaign the Boers fought on level ground. Hitherto their bullets had come from the summits of the hills, and for this reason had not proved nearly so effective as a sustained fire from rifles raised, say, about four and a half feet from the ground. It is of course very much harder to hit a moving enemy when you aim from above at a considerable angle than when you merely hold your rifle steadily at the level of his chest and fire off Mauser cartridges at the rate of twenty a minute. The enemy's fire was very deadly at the Modder. As Lord Methuen said in his despatch, it was quite unsafe to remain on horseback at 2,000 yards' range. The result was that our infantry were compelled to lie prone on the ground, and, without being able to do much by way of retaliation, were exposed for hours to a scathing fusilade from the trenches beside the river. One poor fellow, of whom I saw a good deal, had been through the battle despite the fact that he was suffering great pain from dysentery. He, together with two friends, lay on the veldt for no less than fourteen hours. They had fortunately descried a slight hollow in the ground some 500 yards from the Boer trenches, and between them they "loosed off" quite 1,000 rounds of ammunition. "Well," I asked him, "did you hit anything?" "I don't think we did," was his reply, "because we never saw a Boer the whole day." When the enemy are firing smokeless powder behind their splendidly constructed earthworks they are practically invisible, a fact born witness to by Captain Congreve, V.C., in his account of the first reverse at the Tugela. Now of course when you can't see your enemy you can't very well hit him, so when we clear our minds of fairy-stories about Lyddite and the universal destruction wrought by concussion, it seems highly probable that there is much more truth in the Boers' returns of their casualties than has been believed at home. Take, e.g., the lurid account sent by one of our correspondents about the awful effects of our shell fire upon General Cronje's laager. We were told in graphic language of every space in the laager being torn and rent by the deadly fire of more than fifty field guns, of the trenches being enfiladed and the green fumes of Lyddite rising up from the doomed camp. Cronje emerges with a casualty roll of 170 men, and the only inconvenience from our bombardment experienced by the ladies was the slight abrasion of a young woman's forefinger!