One day our scouts made a splendid haul, bringing into camp that celebrated, devil-may-care animal, the war-correspondent. His story was that he had wandered out of Ladysmith with a packet of newspapers—"merely to exchange notes and to challenge you for a cricket match!"
Squatted on the ground, crowds of bearded Boers gazing at him with fierce interest, he looked anything but comfortable, and no wonder, for the word spion was often uttered. His colour was a pale green, while his teeth chattered audibly. He was subsequently sent to Pretoria, and thence exiled to civilisation, viâ Delagoa Bay.
On the same day we captured three natives bearing British despatches. As these runners were giving considerable trouble, it was decided to execute one and send the other two to spread the news among their friends—black and white.
The grave was already dug, when General Joubert, always against harsh measures, decided to spare the Kafir's life. The contrast between the bearing of this savage and that of the war-correspondent was most striking.
Sometimes the merits of the different commandoes would be discussed. The palm was generally awarded to the Irish Brigade and the Johannesburg Police, two splendid corps, always ready for anything, and possessing what we others painfully lacked—discipline.
The burghers used to relate with much relish a story of how one day the British shells came so fast that even our artillerymen did not dare leave their shelter to bring up ammunition for the gun; how two of those devils of Irishmen sprang to the task, and showed how death should be faced and danger conquered. Erin for ever!
Buller now began to press his advance on the Tugela, and his searchlight could nightly be seen communicating with the besieged; long official messages in cipher, and now and then a pathetic little message, "All well, Edith sends love," would flash against the clouds, causing us to think of other scenes than those before us.
On the tenth of December a heavy bombardment was heard from the Tugela. On happening to pass the telegraph office at two o'clock, a colleague called to me—
"Buller has tried to cross the river; he is being driven back. Ten of his guns are in danger, and as soon as the sun sets our men are going over to take them!"
This was news indeed.
"Which is the road to Colenso?"
"Round those hills, then straight on."
"Thanks, good-bye," and off I went, determined to see those guns taken.
About four hours' hard riding, then a tent by the wayside, the red cross floating above. An ambulance waggon has just arrived, bringing a few wounded. I must be close to the battlefield now, but I hear no firing. What can have happened?
Half an hour further. I see the fires of a small camp twinkling in a gully to my left, and make my way thither. It is pitch dark. As I approach the camp I hear voices. It is Dutch they are speaking. Then several dim shapes loom up before me in the darkness.
"Hello! What commando is this?"
"Hello, is that you? By Jove, so it is! I thought I knew the voice," and dashing Chris Botha shakes my hand.
"It is you, commandant! Where are those ten guns?"
"Oh, that's what you're after. Sorry, but we took them early in the afternoon. Never mind, come along into camp. You'll see enough in the morning."
In the camp they had six Connaught Rangers—a captain, lieutenant, and four men, about four of the lot wounded. They alone of all their regiment had managed to reach the bank of the Tugela—Bridle Drift, about two hundred yards from the trenches of the Swaziland commando. Finding no shelter in the river bank, exhausted, wounded almost to a man, they ceased firing, whereupon our men left them in peace until the end of the fight, when they were brought over and complimented upon their pluck.
"I'm tired out after to-day's work," Botha said, "but there's no help for it. I must sleep in the trenches again to-night. Walk down with me, your friends down there will be glad to see you."
After an hour's walk—it seemed more like a week—we reached the trenches, where the young heroes of the Swaziland commando made me welcome. I asked them about the day's fighting, but they said—
"Too tired to talk to-night, old man. Turn in; to-morrow will do."
We turned in, and slumbered undisturbed by any thought of the blood shed that day.
Early the next morning we waded through the river, wearing only a hat and shirt, and carrying our topboots over the shoulder. Dozens of Boers were splashing about in the water, enjoying themselves like so many schoolboys. Lying strewn about on the other side were scores of dead bodies; by the side of each fallen soldier lay a little pile of empty cartridge cases, showing how long he had battled before meeting his doom. Some lay with faces serenely upturned to the smiling sky, others doubled up in the agony of a mortal wound, with gnashing teeth fixed in a horrid grin, foam-flecked lips, and widely staring eyes.
Horrible, in truth, but most awful of all was the soul-sickening stench of human blood that infected the air. We soon turned back, unable to bear it any longer.
"Did your commando lose many men?" I asked my companion.
"Only two, strange to say. Wonderful; can't explain it."
"How did you feel during the fight?"
"When we saw the vast number of soldiers steadily approaching, and heard the thunderous explosion of hundreds of shells, we knew we were in for a hot time. Our small commando could never have retreated over the four miles of open country behind us. There was only one thing to be done—fight. And we fought—fought till our gun-barrels burnt our hands and our throats were parched with thirst—the excitement of it all!"
"Could you see when your bullet went home?"
"You noticed that soldier lying behind the antheap, a hole in his forehead? That man worried us a good deal. He could shoot, the beggar! Well, two of us fixed our rifles on the spot and waited till he raised his head; then we fired. You know the result."
Boys talking, mere boys, who should have been thinking of flowers, music, and love, instead of thus taking a grim delight in the stern lessons of war.
Saying au revoir to my friends, I now rode over to the telegraph office a few miles lower down. The operators were transmitting piles of messages to and from anxious relatives, and were not sorry to see someone who could lend them a hand. The chief of the department happened to be there at the time. He immediately placed me in harness. I wired to my field-cornet at Ladysmith saying I was unavoidably detained, as the phrase goes, and the next few weeks passed quietly by, long hours and hard work, it is true, but on the other hand pleasant companions and a splendid river, with boating and swimming galore.
One morning a score of Theron's scouts passed by, their famous captain at their head. One of them—an old friend—reined in long enough to tell me they were off to lie in wait for a small British patrol, which, a native had told them, daily passed a certain spot suitable for an ambuscade.
In the afternoon the same band returned, several on foot, and carrying someone in a blanket. What was my surprise to find that this was no other than poor Harry C——!
The native had misled them, and the surprise had been the other way about. My friend had received a bullet through the stomach, a wound which appeared necessarily fatal. He was laid down in a tent. Theron bent over him, his eyes filling with compassionate tears. "How now, Harry?"
"Awful pain, captain."
To break the news gently we wired home that he was only slightly wounded. This turned out to have been wiser than we knew, for, to our joy, Harry lingered on, rallied, and finally recovered, a triumph of medical skill.