In Natal itself the situation was satisfactory, but the course of events elsewhere made the speedy capture of Ladysmith imperative. It was accordingly decided to make an attack on Platrand, or Waggon Hill, as the British call it. If we could gain this hill the town would be at our mercy.
The plan of attack was simple in the extreme. The Free Staters would climb one side, the Transvaalers the other, and Louis Botha himself ride over from Colenso with a reserve of three hundred men.
Our chief determined to view this fight, and agreed to take me along. It had been arranged that the attack should take place on the 6th of January. In the afternoon of the 5th we took the road to Ladysmith, travelling in a light mule-waggon, our horses tied alongside.
Near Nelthorpe a small commando passed us. Knowing very well what errand they were bound upon, we yet thought fit to ask them where they were off to. "Oh, nowhere particular," was the answer. "Out for exercise, that's all." This discretion was most commendable, for in our mixed forces spying must have been easy and frequent.
We pitched tent for the night, and at three the next morning saddled our horses and followed the spoor of the commando. Presently, encountering a Kafir holding half a dozen horses, we asked him where the owners were. He pointed to a hill near by, where we found the gallant Villebois, the kindly Oberst von Braun, and ill-fated von Brusewitz. Little did we think at the time that the latter would meet his death a few weeks later on Spion Kop and the former shortly fall at Boshof!
It was growing light, and we could see, lying on our right, the neutral camp; further away, on Bulwana, our biggest gun, where we knew General Joubert was standing, his wife by his side.
Straight before us lay the key to Ladysmith—Platrand, whence now and again came the sharp rat-tat of the Metford, followed by the Mauser's significant cough.
Through our glasses we espied six helmeted men slowly retreating up the mountain, pausing at every dozen yards to fire a volley at some invisible enemy. Three of them reached the top. The sentries were being driven in.
General Botha now arrived with the reserve force. All dismounted.
"Put your horses out of sight," were his first words to his men, "they will draw the enemy's fire."
Scarcely had he spoken when a shrapnel shell burst overhead, and three horses were lying on their backs, snorting and kicking. Then came another and another. Both went wide. The animals were quickly led behind the hill, and the three wounded put out of their pain.
Taking the best shelter possible, we gazed upon the drama being unfolded before us.
The attack was now in full swing. The grating British volleys, the ceaseless mill of independent firing, the sharp flash of the British guns, the fierce whirr of our French shells, the deep boom of Long Tom resounding through the valleys. Who can describe it all?
Yet hardly a single combatant could be discerned. Attacked and attackers alike were invisible. One soldier only stood in plain view on the crest of the hill, signalling with a flag. Our men reached the crest, and the soldier disappeared. Whether in response to his signals or not, reinforcements presently reached the hill.
In long, thin lines of yellow they ran across the plateau to the crest, hoping to drive the Boers back the way they had come. As it approached the line grew thinner and thinner, until there was nothing of it left. And so on, for hour after hour, the yellow lines of gallant men flung themselves into the open, only to fall beneath the raging fire poured upon them from the sternly held mountain crest.
Down the hill our wounded dribbled, thirsty men, pale men, men covered with blood and weeping with rage. How grim must be the fire they have just passed through! One man is brought down lying across a horse. His face hangs in strips, shattered by a dum-dum bullet. Thank goodness, some of ours are using buckshot to-day!
A Boer mounts on a waggon.
"Who will take in ammunition?"
I turn to my chief. "Do you advise me to try?"
"I cannot; you must decide for yourself."
Throwing a sack of cartridges over my horse's back, I set off. No sooner in the open, than whizz, whizz, went the bullets past my ear. The pony stopped, confused. I struck the spurs into his flanks, and on we flew, the rapid motion, the novelty of the affair, and the continual whistle of the bullets producing in me a peculiar feeling of exaltation.
Then the sack tumbled off. I sprang down, hooked the bridle to a tree, rushed back for the bag, and started forward again. The firing now became so severe that I raced for a clump of trees, hoping to find temporary shelter there. Some of our men were here, lying behind the slender tree-trunks and taking a shot at the enemy now and then.
"Absolutely impossible to live in the open," they said. "Better wait awhile and see how things go."
I laid myself down under the trees and listened to the bullets as they sang through the branches.
The very heavens vibrated as the roar of artillery grew ever fiercer, and the loud echoes rolled along from hill to hill and died away in an awful whisper that shook the grass-tops like an autumn wind.
What were those lines of Bret Harte's about the humming of the battle bees?... I could not remember.
My eyelids grew heavy and presently I was fast asleep.
"Wake up! They're coming round to cut us off. We must clear!" And away went my friend.
Knowing their horses would soon out-distance my heavily laden pony, and trusting to get away unobserved, I took his bridle and led him away. For about twenty yards all went well. Then suddenly there broke loose over us the thickest storm of lead I ever wish to experience. Whether it was a Maxim or not I could not say, but it seemed to me as if the whole British army was bent on my destruction. Like raindrops on a dusty road the bullets struck around me. The pony snorted, shivered, and sometimes stood stock still. I jerked the bridle savagely and struggled on, without the slightest hope of escaping, and thinking what a cruel shame it was that I should be shot at like a deer. Finally the shelter of a dry watercourse was reached. Following this for some distance, I encountered another party of our men, to whom I handed my charge, too shaken to repeat the experiment. The firing now slackened off, and I returned to my chief, full of mortification over my failure.
It was evident the hill would not be taken that afternoon, so we returned to our tent, intending to come back the next morning. Late that evening, however, Colonel Villebois passed and told us our forces had been withdrawn, General Botha being ordered to Colenso, where Buller had made a feint attack to help Ladysmith.
Our struggle was therefore a failure, but it had not been made in vain, since it proved once again that we also could storm a fortified hill, and fight a losing fight—the hardest fight of all.