January 6, 1900.
It has been a commonplace of the war that the Boers could cling to a position of their own choosing from behind stones, but would never venture to attack a position or fight in the open. Like all the comforting commonplaces about the Boers, this is now overthrown. The untrained, ill-equipt farmers have to-day assaulted positions of extraordinary strength, have renewed the attack again and again, have rushed up to breastworks, and died at the rifle's mouth, and have only been repulsed after fifteen hours of hard and gallant fighting on the part of the defence.
Waggon Hill is a long, high spur of Cæsar's Camp, running out south-west between Long Valley and Bester's Farm. At the extremity, as I have described, are the great gun-pits prepared for "Lady Anne" and a Naval 12-pounder some weeks ago. "Lady Anne" was for the second time being brought up into position there last night, and ought to have been fixed the night before, but was stopped half-way by the wet.
The Boer attack was probably not merely an attempt on the gun, but on the position, and the gun is being taken back to her usual position to-night. Besides the gun-pits, the hill has no defences except a few low walls, only two or three stones high, piled up at intervals round the edge, as shelters from long-range fire. The place was held only by three dismounted squadrons of Imperial Light Horse, but the 1st K.R.R. (60th) were in support in a large sangar about three-quarters of a mile along the same ridge, separated from Waggon Hill proper by the low "nek" where the two howitzers used to stand. From the 60th the ridge turns at an angle eastward, and becomes the long tableland of Cæsar's Camp, held by the Manchesters and 42nd Battery (Major Goulburn). The top is broad and flat, covered with grass and loose stones. The whole position completely overlooks the town to the north, and if it fell into the enemy's hands we should either have to retake it or quit the camps and town. The edge measures 4,000 yards, and the Manchesters had only 560 men to hold it.
At a quarter to three a.m., while it was still dark, a small party of Boer sharpshooters climbed up the further (south-east) face of Waggon Hill, just left of the "nek." They were picked men who had volunteered for the exploit. Nearly all came from Harrismith. We had posted a picket of eight at the point, but long security had made them careless, or else they were betrayed by a mistake which nearly lost the whole position. From the edge of the hill the whole face is "dead" ground. It is so steep that an enemy climbing up it cannot be seen. It was almost a case of Majuba again.
The Dutch crept up quite unobserved. At last a sentry challenged, and was answered with "Friend." He was shot dead, and was found with rifle raised and still loaded. The alarm was given, but no one realised what had happened. Captain Long (A.S.C.), who was superintending the transport of "Lady Anne," told me he could not understand how it was that bullets kept whistling past his nose. He thought the firing was from our own sentries. But the Dutch had reached the summit, and were enfilading the "nek" and the whole extremity of the hill from our left. As light began to dawn it was impossible to show oneself for a moment on the open top. The furthest range was not over 300 yards, and the top of a helmet, the corner of an arm, was sufficient aim for those deadly marksmen. Unable to stand against the fire, the Light Horse withdrew behind the crest of the hill, whilst small parties continued a desperate defence from the two big gun-pits.
Nearly all the officers present have been killed or wounded, and it is difficult to get a clear account of what happened from any eye-witness. Four companies from each battalion of the K.R. Rifles came up within the hour, but no one keeps count of time in such a struggle. The Boers were now climbing up all along the face of the hill, and firing from the edge. All day about half the summit was in their possession. Three times they actually occupied the gun-pits and had to be driven out again. Leaning their rifles over the parapets they fired into the space inside. It was so that Major Miller-Wallnutt, of the Gordons, was killed. Old De Villiers, the Harrismith commandant, shot him over the wall, and was in turn shot by Corporal Albrecht, of the Light Horse, who was himself shot by a Field-Cornet, who was in turn shot by Digby-Jones, the sapper. So it went on. The Boers advanced to absolutely certain death, and they met it without hesitation—the Boers who would never have the courage to attack a position! One little incident illustrates their spirit. A rugged old Boer finding one of the I.L.H. wounded on the ground, stopped under fire and bound him up. "I feel no hatred towards you," he said, "but you have no reason to fight at all. We are fighting for our country." He turned away, and a bullet killed him as he turned.
Before six o'clock the defence was further reinforced by a party of Gordons from Maiden Castle. They did excellent work throughout the day, though they, too, were once or twice driven from the top. But the credit of the stand remains with the I.L.H. and a few sappers like Digby-Jones, who held one of the little forts alone for a time, killed three Boers with his revolver, and went for a fourth with the butt. He would have had the V.C. if he had not fallen. So perhaps would Dennis, of the Sappers, though I am told he was present without orders. Lord Ava, galloper to General Ian Hamilton, commanding the defences, was shot through the head early in the day, about six o'clock. Sent forward with a message to the Light Horse, he was looking through glasses over a rock when the bullet took him. While I write he is still alive, but given up. A finer fellow never lived. "You'd never take him for a lord," said an Irish sergeant, "he seems quite a nice gentleman." Equally sad was the loss of Colonel Dick-Cunyngham, of the Gordons. A spent bullet struck him in the back as he was leaving camp. The wound is mortal, and he had only just recovered from his wound at Elands Laagte.
So the fight began. The official estimate of the Boers who gained the top is 600. Eye-witnesses put the number at anything between 100 and 1,000. The struggle continued from 3 a.m. till nearly seven at night. It must be remembered that our men had nothing to eat from five the afternoon before, and got nothing till nine at night. Twenty-eight hours they were without food, and for about sixteen they were fighting for life and death. At 4 p.m. a tremendous thunderstorm with rain and hail came on, but the fire never slackened. The 21st and 67th Batteries were behind the position in front of Range Post, but were unable to give assistance for fear of killing our men. The 18th Hussars and 5th Dragoon Guards and some 5th Lancers came up dismounted to reinforce, but still the enemy clung to the rocks, and still it was death to creep out on the narrow level of the summit.
It was now evident that the position must be retaken at all costs, or the enemy would hold it all night. The General sent for three companies of the Devons. Up they came, tramping through the storm—that glorious regiment of Western Englishmen. Colonel Park and four other officers led them on. It was about six o'clock when they reached the summit. Keeping well to the left of the "nek," between the extremity held by the Light Horse and the 60th's sangar, they took open order under cover of the ridge. Then came the command to sweep the position with the bayonet. They fixed, and advanced at the quick till they reached the open. Then, under a steady hail of bullets, they came on at the double—180 men, with the steel ready. Colonel Park himself led them. The Boers kept up an incessant fire till the line was within fifteen yards. Then they turned and ran, leaping down the steep face of the hill, and disappearing in the dead ground. Their retreat was gallantly covered by their comrades, who swept the ridge with an oblique fire from both sides.
The Devons, edging a little to the right in their charge, got some cover from a low wall near the "nek" just quitted by the Boers. Even there the danger was terrible. It was there that four officers fell, three stone dead. It will be long before such officers as Lafone (already twice wounded in this war) and Field can be replaced. Lieutenant Masterson, formerly a private, and later a colour-sergeant in the Irish Fusiliers, was ordered back over the exposed space cleared by the first charge to bring up a small reinforcement further on the left. On the way he was shot at least three times, but staggered on and gave his order. He still survives, and is recommended for the Victoria Cross. He comes of a fighting Irish stock, and his great-grandfather captured the French Eagle at Barossa in the Peninsular War. He received his commission for gallantry in Egypt.
But the day was won. The position was cleared. That charge finished the business. The credit for the whole defence against one of the bravest attacks ever made rests with the Light Horse, the Gordons, and the Devons. Yet it is impossible to forget the unflinching self-devotion of the King's Royal Rifle officers. They suffered terribly, and the worst is they suffered almost in vain. At one moment, when the defenders had been driven back over the summit's edge, Major Mackworth (of the Queen's, but attached to the King's Royal Rifles) went up again, calling on the men to follow him. Just with his walking-stick in his hand he went up, and with the few brave men who followed him he died.
The attack on the main position of Cæsar's Camp was much the same in plan and result. At 3 a.m. the Manchester pickets along the extremity's left edge (i.e., north-east) were surprised by the appearance of Boers in their very midst. Lieutenant Hunt-Grubbe, who was visiting the pickets, mistook them for volunteers. "Hullo! Boers!" he cried out. They laughed and answered, "Yes, burghers!" He was a prisoner in their hands for some hours. The whole of one section was shot dead at their post. The alarm was given, but the outlying sentries and piquets could not move from the little shelters and walls which alone protected them from the oblique fire from an unknown direction. Many were shot down. Some remained hidden at the bottom of their defence pits till late in the afternoon without being able to stir. Creeping up the dead ground on the cliffs face, which is covered with rocks and thick bushes, the Boers lined the left edge of the summit in great numbers. Probably about 1,000 attacked that part alone, and about 200 advanced on to the top. They were all Transvaal Boers, chiefly volunteers from the commandoes of Heidelburg and Wakkerstroom. This main body was attempting to take our left (north) side of the hill in flank, and kept edging through the thorns and dongas near the foot. The Natal Police, supported by the Natal Mounted Rifles, had been set to prevent such a movement, but had left a gap of 500 yards between their right and three companies of Gordons stationed in front of "Fly" kraal on that side of the hill. At last, observing the enemy in a donga, they challenged, and were met by the answer, "For God's sake, don't fire; we're the Town Guard." At once they were undeceived by a volley which killed one of them and wounded a few others. How far they avenged this act of treachery I have not discovered. The Boers flanking movement was only checked by the 53rd Battery (Major Abdy), which was posted on the flat across the river from the show ground, and did splendid service all day. It shelled the side and top of the hill almost incessantly, though the big Bulwan gun kept pouring shrapnel and common shell right in front of it, making all the veldt look like a ploughed field.
Meantime the Boers on the summit held their ground. Their movement was backed by three field guns and two automatics across the Bester's valley at ranges of 2,000 yards and 4,000 yards. Their further advance along the edge was really checked by two Manchester privates, Scott and Pitts, who kept up an incessant fire from their little wall at the extremity after all their comrades were shot. Three companies of the Rifle Brigade at last came up to reinforce. Then the G Company of the Gordons, under Captain Carnegie. But for a long time no one knew where the gap in our line really was. About half-past nine one could see the enemy still thick among the rocks and trees on the left of the extremity, though the shrapnel was dropping all among them from the 53rd Battery. It was just before this that Lieutenant Walker, watching with a telescope from the signal station on the Convent, saw two Boers creeping along the edge alone for about 150 yards under tremendous fire. Suddenly a shrapnel took them, and both fell down. They were father and son. About half-past ten the first assault was repulsed, and for a time the Boers disappeared, but one could see reinforcements massing behind a hill called the "Red Kopje," across the deep stream of the Bester's valley. The second main attack was delivered about one, and the third during the storm at five. I think, after the first assault, the Boer line never advanced beyond the cover of the edge. But their incessant fire was supported by a storm of long-range bullets from the heights across the valley. The position was not finally cleared till nearly seven.
The attack and the defence were equally gallant, as at Waggon Hill. Our guns were of far more service than theirs, but probably the loss by rifle fire was not so great, the range being longer. The total force of the attack on both positions was probably about 7,000. Some 2,000 Volunteers led the way—old Boer farmers and picked men who came forward after a prayer meeting on Friday. For immovable courage I think it would be impossible to beat our gunners—especially of the 42nd and 53rd Batteries. All through the action they continued the routine of gunnery just as if they were out for exercise on the sands.
By seven o'clock the main positions on the south side of our defences were safe. On the north, fighting had been going on all day also. At about 4 a.m. the artillery and rifle fire was so violent around Observation Hill that I thought the main attack was on that point. Originally the Boers no doubt intended a strong attack there. The hill has always been one of the weakest points of our defence.
The Boers began their attack on Observation Hill just before dawn with a rapid fire of guns and rifles at long range. At first only our guns replied, the two of the 69th doing excellent work with shrapnel over the opposite ridges. By about six we could see the Boers creeping forward over Bell Spruit and making their way up the dongas and ridges in our front. At about eight there was a pause, and it seemed as if the attack was abandoned, but it began again at nine with greater violence. The shell fire was terrific. Every kind of shell, from the 45-pounder of the 4.7 in. howitzer down to the 1-1/2-pounder of the automatic, was hurled against those little walls, while shrapnel burst almost incessantly overhead.
It is significant for our own use of artillery that not a single man 'was killed by shells, though the air buzzed with them. The loose stone walls were cover enough. But the demoralising effect of shell fire is well known to all who have stood it. A good regiment is needed to hold on against such a storm. But the Devons are a good regiment—perhaps the best here now—and, under the command of Major Curry, they held. At half-past nine the rifle fire at short range became terrible.
Boers were crawling up over what little dead ground there was, and one group of them reached an edge from which they began firing into our breastwork at about fifteen yards. One or two of them sprang up as though to charge. With bayonets they might have come on, but, standing to fire, they were at once shot down. Among them was Schutte, the commandant of the force. He was killed on the edge, with about ten others. Then the attacking group fell back into the dead ground. Our men got the order not to fire on them if they ran away. It was the best means of clearing them off the hill, and they made off one by one. The long-range fire continued all day, but there was no further rush upon our works. Our loss was only two men killed and a few wounded. The Boer loss is estimated at fifty, but it is impossible to know.
The King's (Liverpools), who now hold the works built by the Devons on the low Helpmakaar ridge, were also under rifle and shell fire all day. About 3 p.m. about eighty Boers came down the deep ravine or donga at the further end of the ridge. A mounted infantry picket of three men was away across the donga, watching the road towards Lombard's Nek. Instead of retiring, they calmly lay down and fired into the thick of the Boers whenever they saw them. Apparently the Boers had intended some sort of attack or feint, but, instead of advancing, they remained hidden in the donga, firing over the banks. At last Major Grattan, fearing the brave little picket might be cut off, sent out two infantry patrols in extended order, and the Boers did not await their coming; they hurried up the donga into the shelter of the thorns, which just now are all golden with balls of sweet-smelling blossom.
Soon after the sun set behind the storm of rain the fighting ceased. The long and terrible day was done. I found myself with the Irish Fusiliers at Range Post, where the road crosses to the foot of Waggon Hill. The stream of ambulance was incessant—covered mule-waggons, little ox-carts, green dhoolies carried by indomitable Hindoos, knee-deep in water, and indifferent to every kind of death. In the sixteen hours' fighting we have lost fourteen officers and 100 men killed, twenty-one officers and 220 men wounded. The victory is ours. Our men have done what they were set to do. But two or three more such victories, and where should we be?
Sunday, January 7, 1900.
The men remained on the position all night under arms, soaked through and hardly fed. Rum was issued, but half the carts lost their way in the dark, because the officers in charge had preferred to go fighting on the loose and got wounded. The men lay in pools of rain among the dead. Lieutenant Haag, 18th Hussars, kept apologising to the man next him for using his legs as a pillow. At dawn he found the man was a Rifleman long dead, his head in a puddle of blood, his stiff arms raised to the sky. Many such things happened. Under the storm of fire it had been impossible to recover all the wounded before dark. Some lay out fully twenty-four hours without help, or food, or drink. One of the Light Horse was used by a Boer as a rest for his rifle. When I reached Waggon Hill about nine this morning the last of the wounded were being brought down. Nearly all the Light Horse dead (twenty of them) had been taken away separately, but at the foot of the hill lay a row of the Gordons, bloody and stiff, their Major, Miller-Wallnutt, at their head, conspicuous by his size. The bodies of the Rifles were being collected. Some still lay curled up and twisted among the dripping rocks. Slowly the waggons were packed and sent off to the place of burial.
The broad path up the hill and the tracks along the top were stained with blood. It lay in sticky pools, which even the rain could not wash out. It was easy to see where the dead had fallen. Most had lain behind some rock to fire and there met their end. On the summit some Kaffirs were skinning eight oxen which had been spanned to the "Lady Anne's" platform, and stood immovable during the fight. Four had been shot in the action, the others had just been killed as rations. Passing to the further edge where the Boers crept up I saw a Boer ambulance and an ox-waggon waiting. Bearded Boers in their slouch hats stood round them with an English doctor from Harrismith, commandeered to serve. Our men were carrying the Boer wounded and dead down the steep slope. The dead were laid out in line, and put in the ox-waggon. At that time there were seventeen of them waiting, but eight others were still on the hill, and I found them where they fell. Most were grey-bearded men, rough old farmers, with wrinkled and kindly faces, hardened by a grand life in sun and weather. They were dressed in flannel shirts, rough old jackets of brown cloth, rough trousers with braces, weather-stained slouch hats, and every variety of boot. Only a few had socks. Some wore the yellow "veldt-shoes," some were bare-footed; their boots had probably been taken. They lay in their blood, their glazed blue eyes looking over the rocks or up to the sky, their ashen hands half-clenched, their teeth yellow between their pale blue lips.
Beside the outer wall of "Lady Anne's" sangar, his head resting on its stones, lay a white-bearded man, poorly dressed, but refined in face. It was De Villiers, the commandant of the Harrismith district—a relation, a brother perhaps, of the Chief Justice De Villiers, who entertained me at Bloemfontein less than four months ago. Across his body lay that of a much younger man, with a short brown beard. He is thought to have been one of the old man's field cornets, and had fought up to the sangar at his side till a bullet pierced his eye and brain.
Turning back from the extremity of our position, I went along the whole ridge. The ground told one as much as men could tell. Among the rocks lay blood-stained English helmets and Dutch hats; piles of English and Dutch cartridge-cases, often mixed together in places which both sides had occupied; scraps of biltong and leather belts; handkerchiefs, socks, pieces of letters, chiefly in Dutch; dropped ball cartridges of every model—Lee-Metford, Mauser, Martini, and Austrian. I found a few hollow-nosed bullets, too, expanding like the Dum-Dum. The effect of such a bullet was seen on the hat of some poor fellow in the Light Horse. There was a tiny hole on one side, but the further side was all rent to pieces. I hear some "express" sporting bullets have also been taken to the Intelligence Office, but I have not seen them. Beside one Boer was found one of the old Martini rifles taken from the 52nd at Majuba.
On the top of Cæsar's Camp our dead were laid out for burial—Manchesters, Gordons, and Rifle Brigade together. The Boers turned an automatic Maxim on the burying party, thinking they were digging earthworks. In the wooded valley at the foot of the hill they themselves, under Geneva flags, were searching the bushes and dongas for their own dead, and disturbing the little wild deer beside the stream. On the summit parties of our own men were still engaged unwillingly in finding the Boer dead and carrying them down the cliff. Just at the edge of the summit, to which he had climbed in triumph, lay the body of a man about twenty. A shell had almost cut him in half.... Only his face and his hands were untouched. Like most of the dead he had the blue eyes and light hair of the well-bred Boer. When first he was found, his father's body lay beside him, shattered also, but not so horribly. They were identified by letters from home in their pockets.