SUPERFLUOUS ASSISTANCE—A SMILING VALLEY—THE BORDER MOUNTED RIFLES—A RAIN-STORM—A THIRTY-TWO MILES' MARCH—HOW THE TROOPS CAME INTO LADYSMITH.
Ladysmith, Oct. 27.
"Come to meet us!" cried the staff officer with amazement in his voice; "what on earth for?"
It was on October 25, about five miles out on the Helpmakaar road, which runs east from Ladysmith. By the stream below the hill he had just trotted down, and choking the pass beyond, wriggled the familiar tail of waggons and water-carts, ambulances, and doolies, and spare teams of old mules in new harness. A couple of squadrons of Lancers had off-saddled by the roadside, a phalanx of horses topped with furled red and white pennons. Behind them stood a battery of artillery. Half a battalion of green-kilted Gordons sunned their bare knees a little lower down; a company or two of Manchesters back-boned the flabby convoy. The staff officer could not make out what in the world it meant.
He had pushed on from the Dundee column, but it was a childish superstition to imagine that the Dundee column could possibly need assistance. They had only marched thirty odd miles on Monday and Tuesday; starting at four in the morning, they would by two o'clock or so have covered the seventeen miles that would bring them into camp, fifteen miles outside Ladysmith. They were coming to help Ladysmith, if you like; but the idea of Ladysmith helping them!
At his urgency they sent the convoy back. I rode on miles through the openest country I had yet seen hereabouts—a basin of wave-like veldt, just growing thinly green under the spring rains, spangled with budding mimosa-thorn. Scarred here and there with the dry water-courses they call sluits, patched with heaves of wire-fenced down, livened with a verandah, blue cactus-hedged farmhouse or two, losing itself finally in a mazy fairyland of azure mountains—this valley was the nearest approach to what you would call a smiling country I had seen in Africa.
Eight miles or so along the road I came upon the Border Mounted Rifles, saddles off, and lolling on the grass. All farmers and transport riders from the northern frontier, lean, bearded, sun-dried, framed of steel and whipcord, sitting their horses like the riders of the Elgin marbles, swift and cunning as Boers, and far braver, they are the heaven-sent type of irregular troopers. It was they who had ridden out and made connection with the returning column an hour before.
Two miles on I dipped over a ridge—and here was the camp. Bugles sang cheerily; mules, linked in fives, were being zigzagged frowardly down to water. The Royal Irish Fusiliers had loosened their belts, but not their sturdy bearing. Under their horses' bellies lay the diminished 18th Hussars. Presently came up a subaltern of the regiment, who had been on leave and returned just too late to rejoin before the line was cut. They had put him in command of the advanced troop of the Lancers, and how he cursed the infantry and the convoy, and how he shoved the troop along when the drag was taken off! Now he was laughing and talking and listening all at once, like a long wanderer at his home-coming.
No use waiting for sensational stories among these men, going about their daily camp duties as if battles and sieges and forced marches with the enemy on your flank were the most ordinary business of life. No use waiting for fighting either; in open country the force could have knocked thousands of Boers to pieces, and there was not the least chance of the Boers coming to be knocked. So I rode back through the rolling veldt basin. As I passed the stream and the nek beyond the battery of artillery, the Gordons and Manchesters were lighting their bivouac fires. This pass, crevicing under the solid feet of two great stony kopjes, was the only place the Boers would be likely to try their luck at. It was covered; already the Dundee column was all right.
Presently I met the rest of the Gordons, swinging along the road to crown the heights on either side the nek. Coming through I noticed—and the kilted Highlanders noticed, too, they were staying out all night—that the sky over Ladysmith was very black. The great inky stain of cloud spread and ran up the heavens, then down to the whole circumference. In five minutes it was night and rain-storm. It stung like a whip-lash; to meet it was like riding into a wall. Ladysmith streets were ankle deep in half an hour; the camps were morass and pond. And listening to the ever-fresh bursts hammering all the evening on to deepening pools, we learned that the Dundee men had not camped after all, had marched at six, and were coming on all night into Ladysmith. Thirty-two miles without rest, through stinging cataract and spongy loam and glassy slime!
Before next morning was grey in came the 1st Rifles. They plashed uphill to their blue-roofed huts on the south-west side of the town. By the time the sun was up they were fed by their sister battalion, the 2nd, and had begun to unwind their putties. But what a sight! Their putties were not soaked and not caked; say, rather, that there may have been a core of puttie inside, but that the men's legs were embedded in a serpentine cast of clay. As for their boots, you could only infer them from the huge balls of stratified mud men bore round their feet. Red mud, yellow mud, black mud, brown mud—they lifted their feet toilsomely; they were land plummets that had sucked up specimens of all the heavy, sticky soils for fifteen miles. Officers and men alike bristled stiff with a week's beard. Rents in their khaki showed white skin; from their grimed hands and heads you might have judged them half red men, half soot-black. Eyelids hung fat and heavy over hollow cheeks and pointed cheek-bones. Only the eye remained—the sky-blue, steel-keen, hard, clear, unconquerable English eye—to tell that thirty-two miles without rest, four days without a square meal, six nights—for many—without a stretch of sleep, still found them soldiers at the end.
That was the beginning of them; but they were not all in till the middle of the afternoon—which made thirty-six hours on their legs. The Irish Fusiliers tramped in at lunch-time, going a bit short some of them, nearly all a trifle stiff on the feet, but solid, square, and sturdy from the knees upward. They straightened up to the cheers that met them, and stepped out on scorching feet as if they were ready to go into action again on the instant. After them came the guns—not the sleek creatures of Laffan's Plain, rough with earth and spinning mud from their wheels, but war-worn and fresh from slaughter; you might imagine their damp muzzles were dripping blood. You could count the horses' ribs; they looked as if you could break them in half before the quarters. But they, too, knew they were being cheered; they threw their ears up and flung all the weight left them into the traces.
Through fire, water, and earth, the Dundee column had come home again.