A COLUMN ON THE MOVE—THE NIMBLE GUNS—GARRISON GUNNERS AT WORK—THE VELDT ON FIRE—EFFECTIVE SHRAPNEL—THE VALUE OF THE ENGAGEMENT.
Ladysmith, Oct. 26.
The business of the last few days has been to secure the retreat of the column from Dundee. On Monday, the 23rd, the whisper began to fly round Ladysmith that Colonel Yule's force had left town and camp, and was endeavouring to join us. On Tuesday it became certainty.
At four in the dim morning guns began to roll and rattle through the mud-greased streets of Ladysmith. By six the whole northern road was jammed tight with bearer company, field hospital, ammunition column, supply column—all the stiff, unwieldy, crawling tail of an army. Indians tottered and staggered under green-curtained doolies; Kaffir boys guided spans of four and five and six mules drawing ambulances, like bakers' vans; others walked beside waggons curling whips that would dwarf the biggest salmon-rod round the flanks of small-bodied, huge-horned oxen. This tail of the army alone covered three miles of road. At length emerging in front of them you found two clanking field-batteries, and sections of mountain guns jingling on mules. Ahead of these again long khaki lines of infantry sat beside the road or pounded it under their even tramp. Then the General himself and his Staff; then best part of a regiment of infantry; then a company, the reserve of the advanced-guard; then a half-company, the support; then a broken group of men, the advanced party; then, in the very front, the point, a sergeant and half-a-dozen privates trudging sturdily along the road, the scenting nose of the column. Away out of sight were the horsemen.
Altogether, two regiments of cavalry—5th Lancers and 19th Hussars—the 42nd and 53rd Field Batteries and 10th Mountain Battery, four infantry battalions—Devons, Liverpools, Gloucesters, and 2nd King's Royal Rifles—the Imperial Light Horse, and the Natal Volunteers. Once more, it was fighting. The head of the column had come within three miles or so of Modderspruit station. The valley there is broad and open. On the left runs the wire-fenced railway; beyond it the land rises to a high green mountain called Tinta Inyoni. On the left front is a yet higher green mountain, double-peaked, called Matawana's Hoek. Some call the place Jonono's, others Rietfontein; the last is perhaps the least outlandish.
The force moved steadily on towards Modderspruit, one battalion in front of the guns. "Tell Hamilton to watch his left flank," said one in authority. "The enemy are on both those hills." Sure enough, there on the crest, there dotted on the sides, were the moving black mannikins that we have already come to know afar as Boers. Presently the dotted head and open files of a battalion emerged from behind the guns, changing direction half-left to cover their flank. The batteries pushed on with the one battalion ahead of them. It was half-past eight, and brilliant sunshine; the air was dead still; through the clefts of the nearer hills the blue peaks of the Drakensberg looked as if you could shout across to them.
Boom! The sound we knew well enough; the place it came from was the left shoulder of Matawana's Hoek; the place it would arrive at we waited, half anxious, half idly curious, to see. Whirr—whizz—e-e-e-e—phutt! Heavens, on to the very top of a gun! For a second the gun was a whirl of blue-white smoke, with grey-black figures struggling and plunging inside it. Then the figures grew blacker and the smoke cleared—and in the name of wonder the gun was still there. Only a subaltern had his horse's blood on his boot, and his haversack ripped to rags.
But there was no time to look on that or anything else but the amazing nimbleness of the guns. At the shell—even before it—they flew apart like ants from a watering-can. From, crawling reptiles they leaped into scurrying insects—the legs of the eight horses pattering as if they belonged all to one creature, the deadly sting in the tail leaping and twitching with every movement. One battery had wheeled about, and was drawn back at wide intervals facing the Boer hill. Another was pattering swiftly under cover of a ridge leftward; the leading gun had crossed the railway; the last had followed; the battery had utterly disappeared. Boom! Whirr—whizz—e-e-e-e—phutt! The second Boer shell fell stupidly, and burst in the empty veldt. Then bang!—from across the railway—e-e-e-e—whizz—whirr—silence—and then the little white balloon just over the place the Boer shell came from. It was twenty-five minutes to nine.
In a double chorus of bangs and booms the infantry began to deploy. Gloucesters and Devons wheeled half left off the road, split into firing line and supports in open order, trampled through the wire fences over the railway. In front of the Boer position, slightly commanded on the left flank by Tinta Inyoni, was a low, stony ridge; this the Gloucesters lined on the left. The Devons, who led the column, fell naturally on to the right of the line; Liverpools and Rifles backed up right and left. But almost before they were there arrived the irrepressible, ubiquitous guns. They had silenced the enemy's guns; they had circled round the left till they came under cover of the ridge; now they strolled up, unlimbered, and thrust their grim noses over the brow. And then—whew! Their appearance was the signal for a cataract of bullets that for the moment in places almost equalled the high-lead mark of Elandslaagte. The air whistled and hummed with them—and then the guns began.
The mountain guns came up on their mules—a drove of stupid, uncontrolled creatures, you would have said, lumbered up with the odds and ends of an ironworks and a waggon-factory. But the moment they were in position the gunners swarmed upon them, and till you have seen the garrison gunners working you do not know what work means. In a minute the scrap-heaps had flow together into little guns, hugging the stones with their low bellies, jumping at the enemy as the men lay on to the ropes. The detachments all cuddled down to their guns; a man knelt by the ammunition twenty paces in rear; the mules by now were snug under cover. "Two thousand," sang out the major. The No. 1 of each gun held up something like a cross, as if he were going through a religious rite, altered the elevation delicately, then flung up his hand and head stiffly, like a dog pointing. "Number 4"—and Number 4 gun hurled out fire and filmy smoke, then leaped back, half frightened at its own fury, half anxious to get a better view of what it had done. It was a little over. "Nineteen hundred," cried the major. Same ritual, only a little short. "Nineteen fifty"—and it was just right. Therewith field and mountain guns, yard by yard, up and down, right and left, carefully, methodically, though roughly, sowed the whole of Matawana's Hoek with bullets.
It was almost magical the way the Boer fire dropped. The guns came into action about a quarter-past nine, and for an hour you would hardly have known they were there. Whenever a group put their heads over the sky-line 1950 yards away there came a round of shrapnel to drive them to earth again. Presently the hillside turned pale blue—blue with the smoke of burning veldt. Then in the middle of the blue came a patch of black, and spread and spread till the huge expanse was all black, pocked with the khaki-coloured boulders and bordered with the blue of the ever-extending fire. God help any wounded enemy who lay there!
Crushed into the face of the earth by the guns, the enemy tried to work round our left from Tinta Inyoni. They tried first at about a quarter-past ten, but the Natal Volunteers and some of the Imperial Light Horse met them. We heard the rattle of their rifles; we heard the rap-rap-rap-rap-rap of their Maxim knocking at the door, and the Boer fire stilled again. The Boer gun had had another try at the Volunteers before, but a round or two of shrapnel sent it to kennel again. So far we had seemed to be losing nothing, and it was natural to suppose that the Boers were losing a good deal. But at a quarter-past eleven the Gloucesters pushed a little too far between the two hills, and learned that the Boers, if their bark was silent for the moment, could still bite. Suddenly there shot into them a cross-fire at a few hundred yards. Down went the colonel dead; down went fifty men.
For a second a few of the rawer hands in the regiment wavered; it might have been serious. But the rest clung doggedly to their position under cover; the officers brought the flurried men up to the bit again. The mountain guns turned vengeful towards the spot whence the fire came, and in a few minutes there was another spreading, blackening patch of veldt—and silence.
From then the action nickered on till half-past one. Time on time the enemy tried to be at us, but the imperious guns rebuked him, and he was still. At length the regiments withdrew. The hot guns limbered up and left Rietfontein to burn itself out. The sweating gunners covered the last retiring detachment, then lit their pipes. The Boers made a half-hearted attempt to get in both on left and right; but the Volunteers on the left, the cavalry on the right, a shell or two from the centre, checked them as by machinery. We went back to camp unhampered.
And at the end of it all we found that in those five hours of straggling bursts of fighting we had lost, killed and wounded, 116 men. And what was the good? asked doubting Thomas. Much. To begin with, the Boers must have lost heavily; they confessed that aloud by the fact that, for all their pluck in standing up to the guns, they made no attempt to follow us home. Second, and more important, this commando was driven westward, and others were drawn westward to aid it—and the Dundee force was marching in from the east. Dragging sore feet along the miry roads they heard the guns at Rietfontein and were glad. The seeming objectless cannonade secured the unharassed home-coming of the 4000 way-weary marchers from Dundee.