LADYSMITH, October 27, 1899.
If you want to "experience a shock," as the doctors say, be with the head of a column advancing leisurely along a familiar road only six miles from camp, and have a shell flung almost at your feet from a neighbouring mountain top. That was my fortune about the breakfast time of peaceable citizens last Tuesday morning. A squadron of Lancers and some of the Natal Carbineers were in front. Just behind me a battery was rumbling along. A little knot of the staff was close by, and we were all just preparing to halt. We stood on the Newcastle road, north of the town, not far from our first position at the Elands Laagte battle of the Saturday before. The road is close to the railway there, and I was watching an engine and truck going down with a white-flag flying, bringing back poor Colonel Chisholme's body for burial. Suddenly on the left from the top of a mountain side beyond a long rocky ridge I saw the orange flash of a big gun. The next moment came the familiar buzz and scream of a great shell, the crash, the squealing fragments, the dust splashing up all round us as they fell. I have never seen men and horses gallop faster than in our rapid right-wheel over the open ground towards a Kaffir kraal. I think only one horse was badly hurt, but at no military tournament have I seen artillery move in such excellent style. It was all over in a minute. The Boers must have measured the range to a yard, and just have kept that gun loaded and waiting.
But in tactics jokes may be mistakes. That shot revealed the enemy's position. Within ten minutes our gunners had snipt the barbed wire fences along the railway, had dashed their guns across, and were dragging them up that low rocky ridge—say, 300ft. to 400ft. high—which had now so suddenly become our front and fighting position. Three field batteries went up, and close behind them came the Gloucesters on the right, a few companies of the second 60th (K.R.R.) the Liverpools and the Devons in order on the centre and left. On our right we had some of the 19th Hussars and 5th Lancers; on our left a large mixed force of the mounted Natal Volunteers, who were soon strongly engaged in a small valley at the end of the ridge, and suffered a good deal all day. But the chief work and credit lay with our guns. Till they got into position, found the range and began to fire, the enemy's shells kept dropping over the ridge and plumping into the ground. None were so successful as the first, and only few of them burst, but shells are very unpleasant, and it was a relief when at the second or third shot from our batteries we found the enemy's shells had ceased to arrive. We had destroyed the limber, if not the gun, and after that the shells were all on one side. Some say the Boers had two guns, but I only saw one myself, and I watched it as a mouse watches a cat. One does.
The Boers, however, had many cats to watch. Climbing up the ridge towards its left end, I sat among the rocks with the Liverpools and Devons beside one of the batteries, and got a good view of the Boer position. They were in irregular lines and patches among the rocks of some low hills across a little valley in our front, and were stationed in groups upon the two higher mountains (as one may call them) upon our right and left. Both of these points looked down upon our position, and it was only by keeping close among the stones under the edge of our ridge that we got any cover, and that indifferent. But, happily, the range was long, and for hour after hour those two hills were simply swept by our shrapnel. On our right the long mountain edge, where the enemy's gun had been, is called Mattowan's Hoek. The great dome-like hill (really the end of a flat-topped mountain in perspective), on our left, was Tinta Inyoni.
Our infantry lay along the ridge, keeping up a pretty constant fire, and sometimes volleying by sections, whenever they could get sight of their almost invisible enemy. Sometimes they advanced a little way down towards the valley. On the right the Gloucesters about eleven o'clock came over the ridge on to a flat little piece of grass land in front. I suppose they expected to get a better range or clearer view, but within a few minutes that patch of grass was spotted with lumps of khaki. Two officers—one their colonel—and six men were killed outright, and the official list of wounded runs to over fifty. When they had withdrawn again to the ridge the doctors and privates went out to bring the wounded back. Behind the cover of the rocks the dhoolies were waiting with their green-covered stretchers. In the sheltered corner on the flat ground below stood the ambulance waggons ready. All the ambulance service was admirably worked that day, but I think perhaps the highest credit remains with the mild Hindoos.
By twelve o'clock the low hills in our front were burning from our shells, and the smoke of the grass helped still more to conceal this baffling enemy of ours. It was all very well for the gunners, with their excellent glasses, but the ordinary private could hardly see anything to aim at, and yet he was more or less under fire all the time. As to smoke, of course the smokeless powder gives the Boers an immense advantage in their method of fighting. It is hardly ever possible to tell exactly where the shots come from. But I noticed one man near the top of Tinta, who evidently had an old Martini which he valued much more than new-fangled things. Whenever he fired a little puff of grey smoke followed, and I always thought I heard the growl of his bullet particularly close, as though he steadily aimed at some officer near by. He sat under a bush, and had built himself a little wall of rocks in front. Shell after shell was showered upon that rocky hillside, for it concealed many other sharpshooters besides. But at each flash he must have thrown himself behind the stones, and when the shower of lead was over up he got, and again I saw the little puff of grey smoke and heard the growl of a bullet close by.
The firing ceased about three. There was no apparent reason why it should. The Boers had killed a few of us. Probably we had killed more of them. But mere loss of life does not make victory or defeat, and to all appearance we were both on much the same ground as at first, except that the Boers had lost a gun, and were not at all comfortable on the positions they had held. Our withdrawal, however, was due to deeper reasons. A messenger had brought news of the column which had unhappily been driven from Dundee—whether by the Boers' 40-pounder, "Long Tom," or by failing ammunition I will not try to decide. Anyhow, the messenger brought the news that the column was safe and returning unmolested on Ladysmith by the roundabout road eastward, near Helpmakaar. We had held back the enemy from intercepting them on their march. Our long and harassing fight, then, had been worth the sacrifice. It was a victory in strategy. Sir George White gave the order for the infantry to withdraw from the ridge by battalions and return to Ladysmith. By evening we were all in the town again.
Next day I determined to meet the Dundee force on its way. They were reported to have halted about twenty-five miles off the night before, near Sunday's river, which, like all the rivers and spruits just here, runs southward through mountains into the Tugela and Buffalo. About six miles out we had a small force ready to give them assistance if they were pursued. Passing through that column halted by a stream, I went on into more open country, where there was an occasional farm with the invariable tin roof and weeping willows of South Africa. For many miles I saw small parties of our Lancers and Carbineers scouring the country on both sides of the track.
Then soon after I had crossed a wide watershed I came down into broken and rocky country again, well suited for Boers, and there the outposts ended. I had a wide view of distant mountains, far away to the Zulu border on the east, and northwards to the Biggarsberg and Dundee, a terrible country to cross with a retiring column, harassed by three days' fighting. The few white farmers had gone, of course, but, happily, I came upon a Kaffir kraal, and a Kaffir chief himself came out to look at me. The Cape boy who was with me asked if he had seen any English troops that way. "Yes, there were many, many, many, hardly an hour's ride further on. But he was hungry, hungry—he, the chief—and so were his wives—four of them—all of them." He spoke the pretty Zulu language—it is something like Italian.
We went on. The track went steep down hill to a spruit where the water lay in pools. And there on the opposite hill was that gallant little British Army, halted in a position of extreme danger, absolutely commanded on all sides but one, and preparing for tea as unconcernedly as if they were in a Lockhart's shop in Goswell Road. Almost as unconcernedly—for, indeed, some of the officers showed signs of their long anxiety and sleeplessness. When I came among them, some mounted men suddenly showed themselves in the distance. They took them for Boers. I could hardly persuade them they were only our own Carbineers—the outposts through whom I had just ridden. Three of our own scouts appeared across a valley, and never were Boers in greater peril of being shot. I think I may put their lives down to my credit.
The British private was even here imperturbable as usual. He sat on the rocks singing the latest he knew from the music-halls. He lighted his fires and made his tea, and took an intelligent interest in the slaughter of the oxen, for all the world as if he were at manoeuvres on Salisbury Plain. He is really a wonderful person. Filthy from head to foot, drenched with rain, baked with sun, unshorn and unwashed for five days, his eyes bloodshot for want of sleep, hungry and footsore, fresh from terrible fighting, and the loss of many friends, he was still the same unmistakable British soldier, that queer mixture of humour and blasphemy, cheerfulness and grumbling, never losing that imperturbability which has no mixture of any other quality at all. The camping ground was arranged almost as though they were going to stay there for ever. Here were the guns in order, there the relics of the 18th Hussars; there the Leicesters, the 60th, the Dublins, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and the rest. The guards were set and sentries posted. But only two hours later the whole moved off again for three miles' further advance to get them well out of the mountains. Why, on that perilous march through unknown and difficult country, the Dutch did not spring upon them in some pass and blot them out is one of the many mysteries of this strange campaign.
Among them I greeted many friends whom I had come to know at Dundee ten days before. But General Symons and Colonel Gunning, whom I had chosen out as the models of what officers should be, were not there. Nor was the young officer who had been my host—young Hannah of the Leicesters—who at his own cost came out in the ship with us rather than "miss the fun." A shell struck his head. I think he was the first killed in Friday's battle.
I got back to Ladysmith late that night. Early next morning the column began to dribble in. They were received with relief. I cannot say there was much enthusiasm. The road by which I went to meet them is now swarming with Boers.