LADYSMITH, October 31, 1899.
On Sunday we were all astir for a big battle. But no village Sabbath in the Highlands could have been quieter, though it might have been more devotional. We rode about as usual, though our rides are very limited now, and the horse that took me forty miles last Wednesday is pining because the Boers have cut off his exercise. We sweated and swore, and suffered unfathomable thirst, but still there was no more battle than the evening hymn. Next day we knew it would be different. At night I heard the guns go out eastward along the Helpmakaar road to take up a position on our right. At three I was up in the morning darkness, and riding slowly northward with the brigade that was to form our centre, up the familiar Newcastle road. We had not far to go. The Boers save us a lot of exertion. A mile and a half—certainly less than two miles—from the outside of the town was our limit. But as we went the line of yellow behind our two nearest mountains, Lombard's Kop and Bulwan (Mbulwani, Isamabulwan—you may spell it almost as you like), was suddenly shot with red, and the grey night clouds showed crimson on all their hanging edges. The crimson caught the vultures soaring wide through the air, and then the sun himself came up with that blaze of heat which was to torture us all day long.
The central rendezvous beside the Newcastle road was well protected by a high rocky hill, which one can only call a kopje now. There were the 5th Dragoon Guards, the Manchesters, the Devons, the Gordons, with their ambulance and baggage, some of the Natal Volunteers, and when the train from Maritzburg arrived about six the Rifle Brigade marched straight out of it to join us. I climbed the kopje in front of them, and from there could get a fine view of the whole position except the extreme flanks.
At 5.10 the first gun sounded from a battery on the right of our centre—a battery that was to do magnificent work through the day. The enemy's reply was an enormous puff of smoke from a flat-topped hill straight in front of me. A huge shell shrieked through the air, and, passing high above my head, burst slap in the middle of the town behind me. Again and again it came. The second shot fell close to the central hospital; the third in a private garden, where the native servants have been busy digging for fragments ever since, as in a gold mine, not considering how cheap such treasure is now likely to become. The range was something over four miles. One of the shells passed so near the balloon that the officer in the car felt it like a gust of wind. (I ought to have told you about that balloon, by the way. We sent it up first on Sunday morning, our Zulu savages opening their mouths at it, beating their lips, and patting their stomachs with peculiar cries.)
"Long Tom" had come. "Long Tom," the hero of Dundee, able to hurl his vast iron cylinder a clean six miles as often as you will. I saw him and his brother gun on trucks at Sand River Camp on the Transvaal border just before the war began. They say he is French—a Creusot gun—throwing, some say 40lbs., some 95lbs., each shot. Anyhow, the shell is quite big enough, whatever its weight, and it bangs into shops, chapels, ladies' bedrooms without any nice distinctions. I could see "Tom's" ugly muzzle tilted up above a great earthwork which the Boers had heaped near a tree on the edge of that flat-topped hill, which we may call Pepworth, from a little farm hard by.
Our battery was at once turned on to him, and though short at first, it got the range, and poured the deadly shrapnel over that hill for hour after hour. But other guns were there—perhaps as many as six—and they replied to our battery, whilst "Tom" reserved his attention for the town. Often we thought him silenced, but always he began again, just when we were forgetting him, sometimes after over an hour's pause. The Boer gunners, whoever they may be, are not wanting in courage. So the artillery battle went on, hour after hour. I sat on the rocks and watched. At my side the Gordons on picket duty were playing with two little white kids. On the plain in front no one was to be seen but one lone and dirty soldier, who was steadily marching in across it, no one knew from where. He must have lost his way in the night, and now was making for the nearest British lines, hanging his rifle unconcernedly over his shoulder, butt behind.
So we watched and waited. At one moment Dr. Jameson came up to get a look at his old enemy. Then we heard heavy rifle fire far away on our left, where the Gloucesters and Royal Irish Fusiliers had been sent out the night before, and were now on the verge of that terrible disaster which has kept us all anxious and uncertain to-day. The rumour goes that both battalions have disappeared, and what survives of them will next be found in Pretoria. At eight o'clock I saw a new force of Boers coming down a gully in a great mountain behind Pepworth Hill. But for my glass, I should have taken them for a black stream marked with white rocks. But they were horses and men, and the white rocks were horses too. Heavy firing began far away on our right. At nine the Manchesters were called off to reinforce. At half-past nine the Gordons followed, and I went with them. About a mile and a half from the centre we were halted again on the top of another rocky kopje covered with low bush and trees, out of which we frightened several little brown deer and some strange birds.
From the top I could see the whole position of the right flank fairly well, but it puzzled me at first. The guns shelling Pepworth Hill—there were two batteries of them now—were still at their work, just in front of our left now and about half a mile away. Away to our right and further advanced, but quite exposed in the open, were two other batteries, shelling some distant kopjes on our right at the foot of the great mountain lump of Lombard's Kop. I heard afterwards they were shelling an empty and deserted kopje for hours, but I know that only from hearsay. Between the batteries and far away to the right the infantry was lying down or advancing in line, chiefly across the open, against the enemy's position. But what was that position? Take Ladysmith as centre and a radius of five miles, the Boers' position extended round a semicircle or more, from Lombard's Kop on the east to Walker's Hoek on the west, with Pepworth Hill as the centre of the arc on the north. I believe myself that the position was not a mile less than fifteen miles long, and for the most part it was just what Boers like—rocky kopjes and ridges, high and low, always giving cover and opportunity for surprise and ambuscade.
It was against the left flank of that position that our right was now hurling itself. The idea, I suppose, was to roll their left back upon their centre and take Pepworth Hill and "Long Tom" in the confusion of retreat. That may or may not have been the General's plan, but from my post with the Gordons I soon saw something was happening to prevent it. On a flat piece of green in front of the rocky kopjes, where the enemy evidently was, I could see men, not running, but walking about in different directions. They were not crowded, but they seemed to be moving about like black ants, only in a purposeless kind of way. "They are Boers, and we've got them between our men and our battery," said a Gordon officer. But I knew his hope was a vain one. Very slowly they were coming towards us—turning and firing and advancing a little, one by one—but still coming towards us, till at last they began to dribble through the intervals in our batteries. Then we knew it was British infantry retiring—a terrible sight, no matter how small the loss or how wise the order given. Chiefly they were the 60th (K.R.R.) and the Leicesters. I believe the Dublins were there too. Behind them the enemy kept up the incessant crackle of their rifles.
They came back slowly, tired and disheartened and sick with useless losses, but entirely refusing to hurry or crowd. With bullet and shell the enemy followed them hard. Our batteries did what they could to protect them, and Colonel Coxhead, in command of the guns, received the General's praise afterwards. The Natal Volunteers and Gordons, and at least part of the Manchesters were there to cover the retreat, but nothing could restore the position again. Battalions and ranks had got hopelessly mingled, and as soon as they were out of range the men wandered away in groups to the town, sick and angry, but longing above all things for water and sleep. The enemy's shells followed hard on their trail nearly into the town, plumping down in the midst whenever any body of men or horses showed themselves among the ridges of the kopjes. Seeing what was happening on the right the centre began to withdraw as well, and as their baggage train climbed back into the town up the Newcastle road a shell from "Long Tom" fell among them at a corner of the hill, blowing a poor ambulance and stretcher to pieces, and killing one of the Naval Brigade just arrived from the Powerful.
It was the Naval Brigade that saved the day, though, to be sure, a retirement like that is in itself a check, though no disaster. Captain Lambton had placed two of his Elswick wire guns on the road to the town, and sent shot after shot straight upon "Long Tom's" position four miles away. Only twelve-pounders, I believe, they were, but of fine range and precision, and at each successful shot the populace and Zulus standing on the rocks clapped their hands and laughed as at a music-hall. For a time, but only for a time, "Long Tom" held his tongue, and gradually the noise of battle ceased—the bang and squeal of the shells, the crackle of the rifle, the terrifying hammer-hammer of the enemy's two Krupp automatic guns. It was about half-past two and blazing hot. The rest of the day was quiet, but for rumours of the lamentable disaster of which one can hardly speak at present. The Gloucesters and Royal Irish prisoners—1,100 at least after all losses! They say two Boers were brought in blindfold last night to tell the General. This morning an ambulance party has gone out to bring in the wounded, and whilst they are gone with their flag of truce we have peace.
I take the opportunity to write, hurriedly and without correction, for the opportunity is short. "Long Tom" sent two shells into us this morning as we were dressing (I should have said washing, only the water supply is cut), and at any moment he may begin again.
November 1, 1899.
I may add that the retirement of the battalions of the 60th, with the Leicesters, is the theme of every one's praise to-day. Its success was chiefly due to General Hunter, and the dogged courage of the men themselves.
But the second part of the despatch is after all the main point of interest. Such a disaster has, I suppose, seldom befallen two famous and distinguished battalions. After heavy loss they are prisoners. They are wiped out from the war. The Gloucesters and the Royal Irish Fusiliers—they join the squadron of the 18th Hussars in Pretoria gaols. Two Boers came in blindfolded to tell the news last night. All day long we have been fetching in the wounded. Their wounds are chiefly from Martini rifles, and very serious. I know the place of the disaster well, having often ridden there when the Boers were at a more respectful distance. It is an entangled and puzzling country, full of rocks and hills and hidden valleys. It was only some falling boulders that caused the ruin—a few casual shots—and the stampeding mules. That ammunition mule has always a good deal to bear, but now the burden put on him officially is almost too heavy for any four-legged thing.