FRENCH'S RECONNAISSANCE—AN ARTILLERY DUEL—BEGINNING OF THE ATTACK—RIDGE AFTER RIDGE—A CROWDED HALF-HOUR.
Ladysmith, Oct. 22.
From a billow of the rolling veldt we looked back, and black columns were coming up behind us.
Along the road from Ladysmith moved cavalry and guns. Along the railway line to right of it crept trains—one, two, three of them—packed with khaki, bristling with the rifles of infantry. We knew then that we should fight before nightfall.
Major-General French, who commanded, had been out from before daybreak with the Imperial Light Horse and the battery of the Natal Volunteer Artillery reconnoitring towards Elandslaagte. The armoured train—slate-colour plated engine, a slate-colour plated loopholed cattle-truck before and behind, an open truck with a Maxim at the tail of all—puffed along on his right. Elandslaagte is a little village and railway station seventeen miles north-east of Ladysmith, where two days before the Boers had blown up a culvert and captured a train. That cut our direct communication with the force at Dundee. Moreover, it was known that the Free State commandoes were massing to the north-west of Ladysmith and the Transvaalers to attack Dundee again. On all grounds it was desirable to smash the Elandslaagte lot while they were still weak and alone.
The reconnaissance stole forward until it came in sight of the little blue-roofed village and the little red tree-girt station. It was occupied. The Natal battery unlimbered and opened fire. A round or two—and then suddenly came a flash from a kopje two thousand yards beyond the station on the right. The Boer guns! And the next thing was the hissing shriek of a shell—and plump it dropped, just under one of the Natal limbers. By luck it did not burst; but if the Boer ammunition contractor was suspect, it was plain that the Boer artillerist could lay a gun. Plump: plump: they came right into the battery; down went a horse; over went an ammunition-waggon. At that range the Volunteers' little old 7-pounders were pea-shooters; you might as well have spat at the enemy. The guns limbered up and were off. Next came the vicious phutt! of a bursting shell not fifty yards from the armoured train—and the armoured train was puffing back for its life. Everybody went back half-a-dozen miles on the Ladysmith road to Modder Spruit Station.
The men on reconnaissance duty retired, as is their business. They had discovered that the enemy had guns and meant fighting. Lest he should follow, they sent out from Ladysmith, about nine in the morning, half a battalion apiece of the Devonshire and Manchester Regiments by train, and the 42nd Field Battery, with a squadron of the 5th Dragoon Guards, by road. They arrived, and there fell on us the common lot of reconnaissances. We dismounted, loosened girths, ate tinned meat, and wondered what we should do next. We were on a billow of veldt that heaved across the valley: up it ran, road and rail; on the left rose tiers of hills, in front a huge green hill blocked our view, with a tangle of other hills crowding behind to peep over its shoulders. On the right, across the line, were meadows; up from them rose a wall of red-brown kopje; up over that a wall of grass-green veldt; over that was the enemy. We ate and sat and wondered what we should do next. Presently we saw the troopers mounting and the trains getting up steam; we mounted; and scouts, advance-guard, flanking patrols—everybody crept slowly, slowly, cautiously forward. Then, about half-past two, we turned and beheld the columns coming up behind us. The 21st Field Battery, the 5th Lancers, the Natal Mounted Volunteers on the road; the other half of the Devons and half the Gordon Highlanders on the trains—total, with what we had, say something short of 3000 men and eighteen guns. It was battle!
The trains drew up and vomited khaki into the meadow. The mass separated and ordered itself. A line of little dots began to draw across it; a thicker line of dots followed; a continuous line followed them, then other lines, then a mass of khaki topping a dark foundation—the kilts of the Highlanders. From our billow we could not see them move; but the green on the side of the line grew broader, and the green between them and the kopje grew narrower. Now the first dots were at the base—now hardly discernible on the brown hill flanks. Presently the second line of dots was at the base. Then the third line and the second were lost on the brown, and the third—where? There, bold on the sky-line. Away on their right, round the hill, stole the black column of the Imperial Light Horse. The hill was crowned, was turned—but where were the Bo—
A hop, a splutter, a rattle, and then a snarling roll of musketry broke on the question,—not from the hill, but far on our left front, where the Dragoon Guards were scouting. On that the thunder of galloping orderlies and hoarse yells of command—advance!—in line!—waggon supply!—and with rattle and thunder the batteries tore past, wheeled, unlimbered as if they broke in halves. Then rattled and thundered the waggons, men gathered round the guns like the groups round a patient in an operation. And the first gun barked death. And then after all it was a false alarm. At the first shell you could see through glasses mounted men scurrying up the slopes of the big opposite hill; by the third they were gone. And then, as our guns still thudded—thud came the answer. Only where? Away, away on the right, from the green kopje over the brown one where still struggled the reserves of our infantry.
Limbers! From halves the guns were whole again, and wheeled away over ploughland to the railway. Down went a length of wire-fencing, and gun after gun leaped ringing over the metals, scoring the soft pasture beyond. We passed round the leftward edge of the brown hill and joined our infantry in a broad green valley. The head of it was the second skyline we had seen; beyond was a dip, a swell of kopje, a deep valley, and beyond that a small sugar-loaf kopje to the left and a long hog-backed one on the right—a saw of small ridges above, a harsh face below, freckled with innumerable boulders. Below the small kopje were tents and waggons; from the leftward shoulder of the big one flashed once more the Boer guns.
This time the shell came. Faint whirr waxed presently to furious scream, and the white cloud flung itself on to the very line of our batteries unlimbering on the brow. Whirr and scream—another dashed itself into the field between the guns and limbers. Another and another, only now they fell harmlessly behind the guns, seeking vainly for the waggons and teams which were drawn snugly away under a hillside on the right. Another and another—bursting now on the clear space in rear of the guns between our right and left infantry columns. All the infantry were lying down, so well folded in the ground that I could only see the Devons on the left. The Manchesters and Gordons on the right seemed to be swallowed by the veldt.
Then between the bangs of their artillery struck the hoarser bay of our own. Ball after ball of white smoke alighted on the kopje—the first at the base, the second over, the third jump on the Boer gun. By the fourth the Boer gun flashed no more. Then our guns sent forth little white balloons of shrapnel, to right, to left, higher, lower, peppering the whole face. Now came rifle-fire—a few reports, and then a roll like the ungreased wheels of a farm cart. The Imperial Light Horse was at work on the extreme right. And now as the guns pealed faster and faster we saw mounted men riding up the nearer swell of kopje and diving over the edge. Shrapnel followed; some dived and came up no more.
The guns limbered up and moved across to a nearer position towards the right. As they moved the Boer gun opened again—Lord, but the German gunners knew their business!—punctuating the intervals and distances of the pieces with scattering destruction. The third or fourth shell pitched clean into a labouring waggon with its double team of eight horses. It was full of shells. We held our breath for an explosion. But, when the smoke cleared, only the near wheeler was on his side, and the waggon had a wheel in the air. The batteries unlimbered and bayed again, and again the Boer guns were silent. Now for the attack.
The attack was to be made on their front and their left flank—along the hog-back of the big kopje. The Devons on our left formed for the front attack; the Manchesters went on the right, the Gordons edged out to the extreme rightward base, with the long, long boulder-freckled face above them. The guns flung shrapnel across the valley; the watchful cavalry were in leash, straining towards the enemy's flanks. It was about a quarter to five, and it seemed curiously dark for the time of day.
No wonder—for as the men moved forward before the enemy the heavens were opened. From the eastern sky swept a sheer sheet of rain. With the first stabbing drops horses turned their heads away, trembling, and no whip or spur could bring them up to it. It drove through mackintoshes as if they were blotting-paper. The air was filled with hissing; underfoot you could see solid earth melting into mud, and mud flowing away in water. It blotted out hill and dale and enemy in one grey curtain of swooping water. You would have said that the heavens had opened to drown the wrath of man. And through it the guns still thundered and the khaki columns pushed doggedly on.
The infantry came among the boulders and began to open out. The supports and reserves followed up. And then, in a twinkling, on the stone-pitted hill-face burst loose that other storm—the storm of lead, of blood, of death. In a twinkling the first line was down behind rocks firing fast, and the bullets came flicking round them. Men stopped and started, staggered and dropped limply as if the string were cut that held them upright. The line pushed on; the supports and reserves followed up. A colonel fell, shot in the arm; the regiment pushed on.
They came to a rocky ridge about twenty feet high. They clung to cover, firing, then rose, and were among the shrill bullets again. A major was left at the bottom of that ridge, with his pipe in his mouth and a Mauser bullet through his leg; his company pushed on. Down again, fire again, up again, and on! Another ridge won and passed—and only a more hellish hail of bullets beyond it. More men down, more men pushed into the firing line—more death-piping bullets than ever. The air was a sieve of them; they beat on the boulders like a million hammers; they tore the turf like a harrow.
Another ridge crowned, another welcoming, whistling gust of perdition, more men down, more pushed into the firing line. Half the officers were down; the men puffed and stumbled on. Another ridge—God! Would this cursed hill never end? It was sown with bleeding and dead behind; it was edged with stinging fire before. God! Would it never end? On, and get to the end of it! And now it was surely the end. The merry bugles rang out like cock-crow on a fine morning. The pipes shrieked of blood and the lust of glorious death. Fix bayonets! Staff officers rushed shouting from the rear, imploring, cajoling, cursing, slamming every man who could move into the line. Line—but it was a line no longer. It was a surging wave of men—Devons and Gordons, Manchester and Light Horse all mixed, inextricably; subalterns commanding regiments, soldiers yelling advice, officers firing carbines, stumbling, leaping, killing, falling, all drunk with battle, shoving through hell to the throat of the enemy. And there beneath our feet was the Boer camp and the last Boers galloping out of it. There also—thank Heaven, thank Heaven!—were squadrons of Lancers and Dragoon Guards storming in among them, shouting, spearing, stamping them into the ground. Cease fire!
It was over—twelve hours of march, of reconnaissance, of waiting, of preparation, and half an hour of attack. But half an hour crammed with the life of half a lifetime.