LADYSMITH, October 22, 1899.
It was a fair morning yesterday, cool after rain, the thin clouds sometimes letting the sun look through. At half-past ten I was some six or seven miles out along the Newcastle road—a road in these parts being merely a worn track over the open veldt, distinguishable only by the ruts and mud. Close on the left were high and shapely hills, like Welsh mountains, but on the right the country was more open. A Mr. Malcolm's farm stood in the middle of a waving plain, with a few fields, aloe hedges, and poplars. The kraal of his Kaffir labourers was near it, and about a mile away the plain ended in a low ridge of rocky "kopjes," which ran to join the mountainous ground on the left at a kind of "nek" or low pass over which the railway runs. Beyond that low ridge lay Elands Laagte, an important railway station with a few collieries close by, a store, a hotel, and some houses.
The Boers had occupied it two days before, had captured a train there, and torn up the rail in two places, making a number of prisoners and seizing 100 head of cattle and quantities of other private stores and the luggage going to Dundee. Early in the morning we had gone out with four companies of the Manchesters in an armoured train with an ordinary train behind it, a battery of Natal Field Artillery, and the Imperial Light Horse under Colonel Scott Chisholme, to reconnoitre with a view to repairing the line. They seized the station and released a number of prisoners, but were compelled to withdraw by three heavy Nordenfeldt guns, which the Boers had posted on a hill about 2,500 yards beyond the station. At half-past ten they had reached the point I describe, and were very slowly coming back towards Ladysmith, the trains moving backwards, and the cavalry walking on each side the line. The point is called Modder's Spruit, from some early Dutchman, and there is a little station there, the first out from Ladysmith town. At that moment another train was seen coming up with the 1st Devons, and within an hour a fourth arrived with five companies of the Gordons. The 42nd Field Battery then came, and the 21st later; the 5th Lancers with a few 5th Dragoon Guards, and a large contingent of Natal mounted volunteers. That was our force. It took up a strong and fairly concealed position behind a rise in the road to the left of the railway and waited. Meantime the Boer scouts crept along that rocky ridge on our right front and down into the plain, firing into us at long range, quite without effect.
At half-past one General French, who had taken command, sent out a few Lancers to watch our left, and a large force of mixed cavalry to the right. By a long circuit these swept up the whole length of the ridge and cleared out the Boer sharpshooters, who could be seen galloping away over the top. The infantry then detrained and advanced across the plain and up the ridge in extended order, half a battery meantime driving out a small Boer party, which was firing upon our Lancers on our left.
When we reached the top of that long ridge, we found it broad as well as long, and we were moving rapidly across it when, with the usual whirr and crash and scream, one of the enemy's big shells fell in the midst of our right centre, killing two horses at a gun. It was at once followed by another, and a dozen or two more. They had our range exactly, and the art of knowing what was going on behind the hill, but though the shells burst all right and hot fragments or bullets went shrieking through the midst of us, I did not see anything but horses actually struck. I think six or seven horses were killed at that place, and later on I heard of a bugler having his head cut off, and two or three others killed by shell, but otherwise I believe the artillery did us no damage, though to most men it is more terrifying than rifle fire. When we reached the edge of the ridge we looked across a broad low valley, with one small wave in it, to the enemy's main position on some rocky hills nearly 4,000 yards away. The place was very strong and well chosen.
Opposite our right ran a long high ridge covered with rocks and leading up to a rocky plateau. In their centre was a pointed hill, at the foot of which stood their camp, with tents and waggons. Opposite our left was a small detached kopje, and beyond that a fairly flat plain, with a river running through it, and the railway beyond Elands Laagte Station. Their three guns stood on the rocky ridge to our right of their camp—two together half-way down, one a little higher up. Flash—flash—they went, and then came the whirr, the crash, and the screaming fragments.
Suddenly our guns opened in answer from our right centre, and we could watch the shrapnel bursting right over their gunners' heads. They say the gunners were German. At all events, they were brave fellows, and worked the guns with extraordinary skill and courage. The official account admits that they returned several times to their posts after being driven out by our shell. The afternoon was passing, and if we were to take the place before dark we could not spare time to shake it with our artillery much longer. At about half-past four the infantry were ordered to advance, the Gordons and Manchesters on the right, the Devons on the left. They went down the long slope and across the valley with perfect intervals and line, much better than they go in the hollows of the old Fox Hills.
In the advance the Gordons and Manchesters gradually changed direction half right and crept up towards that plateau on the right of the ridge, so as to take the enemy in flank. The Devons went straight forward, coming into infantry fire as they crossed that low wave of ground in the middle of the valley. On the further slope they were ordered to lie down and wait till the flanking movement was developed. Happily the slope, as is usual in South Africa, was thickly spotted over with great ant-hills, beneath which the ant-eater digs his den. Ant-heaps, hardened almost to brick, make excellent cover, and we lay down behind them on any bit of rock we could find, the fire being very hot, and the Mauser bullets making their unpleasant whiffle as they passed. I think the first man hit was a private, who got a ball through his head by the ear. He was carried away, but died before he got off the field. A young officer was struck soon afterwards, and then the bearers began to be busy. There were far too few of them, and no one could find the ambulance carts. As a matter of fact they had not left Ladysmith—twelve miles at least away. Most of the wounded tried to creep back out of fire. Some lay quite still. I heard only two or three call out for help. Meantime the rest were keeping up a steady fire, not by volleys, but as each could sight a Boer among the rocks, and my own belief is that very few Boers were hit that way.
Climbing up a heap of loose stones a little to the right of the Devons, I could now see the Boers at the top of their position in the centre, moving about rapidly, taking cover, resting their rifles on the stones, and firing both at us and at the men who were pushing up the slope threatening their flank. Meantime the artillery pumped iron and lead upon them without mercy. Their own guns were quite silenced about this time, being unable to stand the combined shell and rifle fire. But the ordinary Boers—the armed and mounted peasants—still clung to their rocks as though nothing could drive them out.
One big man in black I watched for what seemed a very long time. He was standing right against the sky line, sometimes waving his arm, apparently to give directions. Shells burst over his head, and bullets must have been thick round him. Once or twice he fell, as though slipping on the rocks, for the rain had begun again. But he always reappeared, till at last shrapnel exploded right in his face, and he sank together like a dropped rag. Just after that the Manchesters and Gordons began to force their way along the top of the ridge on the Boers' left. They had the dismounted Imperial Light Horse with them, and it was there that the loss was most terrible. Sometimes the advance hardly seemed to move, sometimes it rushed forward, and then appeared to swing back again. It was six o'clock, rain was falling in torrents, and it was getting dark. Perhaps the Gordons suffered most. Fourteen officers were killed and wounded there, and next day the killed men lay thick among the rocks. The Boer prisoners say the Gordon kilts made them easy marks. But the Light Horse lost, too—lost their Colonel, Scott Chisholme, who had been so eager for their success. Still the Boers kept up their terrible fire, and the attack crept forward, rock by rock. At the same time the Devons were called on to advance, and, getting up from the ant-hills without a moment's pause, they strode forward to the foot of the hill, keeping up an incessant fire as they went. Then we heard the bugler sounding the charge high up on our right, and we could just see the flank attack rushing forward and cheering. The Boers were galloping away or running from the top. The Devons also sounded the charge and rushed up the front of the position, but from that isolated hill on our left they met so obstinate a fire that the order for magazine firing was given, and for a few minutes the rifles rattled without a second's pause, in a long roar of fire. Then, with a wild cheer, the Devons cleared the position. It is due to them to say that they were first at the guns. Meantime, the "Cease Fire!" had sounded several times on the summit, but the firing did not cease. I don't know why it was. Perhaps the Boers were still resisting in parts. Certainly many of our men were drunk with excitement. "Wipe out Majuba!" was a constant cry. But the Boers had gone.
The remnants of them were struggling to get away in the twilight over a bit of rocky plain on our left. There the Dragoon Guards got them, and three times went through. A Dragoon Guards corporal who was there tells me the Boers fell off their horses and rolled among the rocks, hiding their heads in their arms and calling for mercy—calling to be shot, anything to escape the stab of those terrible lances. But not many escaped. "We just gave them a good dig as they lay," were the corporal's words. Next day most of the lances were bloody.
The victory was ours. We had gained a stony and muddy little hill strewn with the bodies of dead and wounded peasants, clerks, lawyers, and other kinds of men. Most were from Johannesburg. Nearly all spoke English like their native language. In one corner on the slope of the hill towards their little camp and waggons I counted fourteen dead together. In one of the tents were three dead men, all killed by the same shell, apparently whilst asleep. Yet I do not think there were more than thirty actually killed among the rocks in all. It is true that darkness fell rapidly, and the rain was blinding; but I was nearly two hours on the ground moving about. The wounded lay very thick, groaning and appealing for help. In coming down I nearly trod on the upturned white face of an old white-bearded man. He was lying quite silent, with a kind of dignity. We asked who he was. He said: "I am Kock, the father of Judge Kock. No, I am not the commandant. He is the commandant." But the old man was wrong. He himself had been in command, though instead of fighting he had read the Bible and prayed. One bullet had passed through his shoulder, another through his groin. So he lay still and read no more. Near him was a boy with a hand just a mixture of shreds and bones and blood. But he too was very quiet, and only asked for a handkerchief to bind it together. Others were gradually dying. Many were not found till daylight. The dead of both sides lay unburied till Monday.
In the mud and stones just above the captured guns, General French stood giving directions for the bivouac, and dictating a message to Sir George White praising the troops, especially the infantry who had been commanded by Colonel Ian Hamilton. The assemble kept sounding over the hill, and Gordons tried to sift themselves from Manchesters, and Light Horse from Devons. All were shouting and questioning and calling to each other in the dark. Soon they settled down; the Boers had left scores of saddles, coats, and Kaffir blankets, provisions, too, water-bottles, chickens, and in one case a flask of carbolic disinfectant, which a British soldier analysed as "furrin wine." So, on the whole, the fellows made themselves fairly comfortable in spite of the cold and wet. Then I felt my way down over the rocks, taking care, if possible, not to tread on anything human, and then sought out the difficult twelve-mile track to Ladysmith over the veldt and hills, lighted towards midnight by a waning and clouded moon.