AN ATTENUATED MESS—A REGIMENT 220 STRONG—A MISERABLE STORY—THE WHITE FLAG—BOER KINDNESS—ASHAMED FOR ENGLAND.
Ladysmith, Nov. 1.
The sodden tents hung dankly, black-grey in the gusty, rainy morning. At the entrance to the camp stood a sentry; half-a-dozen privates moved to and fro. Perhaps half-a-dozen were to be seen in all—the same hard, thick-set bodies that Ladysmith had cheered six days before as they marched in, square-shouldered through the mud, from Dundee. The same bodies—but the elastic was out of them and the brightness was not in their eyes. But for these few, though it was an hour after reveillé, the camp was cold and empty. It was the camp of the Royal Irish Fusiliers.
An officer appeared from the mess-tent—pale and pinched. I saw him when he came in from Dundee with four sleepless nights behind him; this morning he was far more haggard. Inside were one other officer, the doctor, and the quarter-master. That was all the mess, except a second lieutenant, a boy just green from Sandhurst. He had just arrived from England, aflame for his first regiment and his first campaign. And this was the regiment he found.
They had been busy half the night packing up the lost officers' kits to send down to Durban. Now they were packing their own; a regiment 220 strong could do with a smaller camp. The mess stores laid in at Ladysmith stood in open cases round the tent. All the small luxuries the careful mess-president had provided against the hard campaign had been lost at Dundee. Now it was the regiment was lost, and there was nobody to eat the tinned meats and pickles. The common words "Natal Field Force" on the boxes cut like a knife. In the middle of the tent, on a table of cases, so low that to reach it you must sit on the ground, were the japanned tin plates and mugs for five men's breakfast—five out of five-and-twenty. Tied up in a waterproof sheet were the officers' letters—the letters of their wives and mothers that had arrived that morning seven thousand miles from home. The men they wrote to were on their way to the prisoners' camp on Pretoria racecourse.
A miserable tale is best told badly. On the night of Sunday, October 29, No. 10 Mountain Battery, four and a half companies of the Gloucestershire Regiment, and six of the Royal Irish Fusiliers—some 1000 men in all—were sent out to seize a nek some seven miles north-west of Ladysmith. At daybreak they were to operate on the enemy's right flank—the parallel with Majuba is grimly obvious—in conjunction with an attack from Ladysmith on his centre and right. They started. At half-past ten they passed through a kind of defile, the Boers a thousand feet above them following every movement by ear, if not by eye. By some means—either by rocks rolled down on them or other hostile agency, or by sheer bad luck—the small-arm ammunition mules were stampeded. They dashed back on to the battery mules; there was alarm, confusion, shots flying—and the battery mules stampeded also.
On that the officer in command appears to have resolved to occupy the nearest hill. He did so, and the men spent the hours before dawn in protecting themselves by schanzes or breastworks of stones. At dawn, about half-past four, they were attacked, at first lightly. There were two companies of the Gloucesters in an advanced position; the rest, in close order, occupied a high point on the kopje; to line the whole summit, they say, would have needed 10,000 men. Behind the schanzes the men, shooting sparely because of the loss of the reserve ammunition, at first held their own with little loss.
But then, as our ill-luck or Boer good management would have it, there appeared over a hill a new Boer commando, which a cool eye-witness put at over 2000 strong. They divided and came into action, half in front, half from the kopjes in rear, shooting at 1000 yards into the open rear of the schanzes. Men began to fall. The two advanced companies were ordered to fall back; up to now they had lost hardly a man, but once in the open they suffered. The Boers in rear picked up the range with great accuracy.
And then—and then again, that cursed white flag!
It is some sneaking consolation that for a long time the soldiers refused to heed it. Careless now of life, they were sitting up well behind their breastworks, altering their sights, aiming coolly by the half-minute together. At the nadir of their humiliation they could still sting—as that new-come Boer found who, desiring one Englishman to his bag before the end, thrust up his incautious head to see where they were, and got a bullet through it. Some of them said they lost their whole firing-line; others no more than nine killed and sixteen wounded.
But what matters it whether they lost one or one million? The cursed white flag was up again over a British force in South Africa. The best part of a thousand British soldiers, with all their arms and equipment and four mountain guns, were captured by the enemy. The Boers had their revenge for Dundee and Elandslaagte in war; now they took it, full measure, in kindness. As Atkins had tended their wounded and succoured their prisoners there, so they tended and succoured him here. One commandant wished to send the wounded to Pretoria; the others, more prudent as well as more humane, decided to send them back into Ladysmith. They gave the whole men the water out of their own bottles; they gave the wounded the blankets off their own saddles and slept themselves on the naked veldt. They were short of transport, and they were mostly armed with Martinis; yet they gave captured mules for the hospital panniers and captured Lee-Metfords for splints. A man was rubbing a hot sore on his head with a half-crown; nobody offered to take it from him. Some of them asked soldiers for their embroidered waist-belts as mementoes of the day. "It's got my money in it," replied Tommy—a little surly, small wonder—and the captor said no more.
Then they set to singing doleful hymns of praise under trees. Apparently they were not especially elated. They believed that Sir George White was a prisoner, and that we were flying in rout from Ladysmith. They said that they had Rhodes shut up in Kimberley, and would hang him when they caught him. That on their side—and on ours? We fought them all that morning in a fight that for the moment may wait. At the end, when the tardy truth could be withheld no more—what shame! What bitter shame for all the camp! All ashamed for England! Not of her—never that!—but for her. Once more she was a laughter to her enemies.