THE ACTION AT GRASPAN
THE general advance along the railway was recommenced at 1.80 P.M., the armoured train moving abreast of the Division, and being followed by another train with the naval 12-pounders on trucks. Lieutenant Dean was in command of these, and their mule teams had been lent to the field batteries, in order that the exhausted horses might reserve their strength till actually in contact with the enemy.
Our destination was two shallow dams, about seven miles north of Belmont, and as it was expected that their possession would be contested, the advance was exceedingly slow to allow of very careful scouting ahead. However, the Boers were good enough not to give any trouble, and at sunset a final halt was called, and the Division bivouacked for the night, between two small kopjes on either flank, the Naval Brigade occupying the post of honour on the extreme right, and throwing out a company of marines to hold a narrow ‘ nek ' of rising ground in the right rear.
The local topography of this narrow 'nek' became tolerably well known that night, for on the opposite side lay the two dams from which water had to be obtained.
The men, carrying water bottles and mess tins, were taken across a company at a time, and will not readily forget these excursions. The night was extremely dark, except for the occasional treacherous' light of a quarter moon; great boulders brought them up with a 'round turn' and barked shins; loose stones tripped them and spilt the water they carried; and deep holes, concealed by long grass, laid pitfalls for those who had managed to steer clear of other dangers.
These dams were only three-quarters of a mile away, yet the double journey occupied two hours, and as they were very shallow, with about twelve inches of mud and three of water, more mud than water was brought back. However, we tried to imagine it was rum.
By the time water was obtained and fires burning brightly it was reported that our commissariat wagons had dragged themselves up, so the gunner went off in the dark to hunt for them, and after a long search returned with sufficient tinned meat and ship's biscuit to issue a small ration to all. As a great luxury, the officers opened a tin of preserved kidneys, and these, biscuits and muddy water, eaten round the fires, formed our supper.
The fact, however, that this was ' real soldiering' made the fare seem luxurious, and, in the circumstances, the ' sardine, beer, and onion' suppers after a long ' coal-ship' day could not stand comparison.
Supper being finished we smoked round our fires and discussed the situation generally, the chances of getting some sleep and the probable events of to-morrow.
'We must get the chance of a "show" before reaching Kimberley,' was the general opinion, and the ' show' we meant was a little infantry work in addition to our long-range artillery business.
Almost as this opinion was expressed, out of the darkness into the light of our fire stepped the good fairy we had invoked, a somewhat dust-grimed A.D.G., inquiring ' Is this the Naval Brigade ?'
' Yes, old chap. Sorry we can't give you a drink.'
' I want the officer commanding.'
We directed him to Captain Prothero, and heard him say as he handed the captain some orders,' You will have a nice job to-morrow, sir, something more to your liking.'
Immediately the officers were summoned, and the captain read the laconic order, 'The enemy, about four hundred strong, hold a hill on our line of advance two miles to the north. The Naval Brigade will lead the attack, supported by the K.O.Y.L.I. and a field battery. . . .' Then followed precise instructions as to movements and dispositions.
'Good-night, sir,' said the A.D.C., and disappeared.
At last the Navy was to have a ' show' all to herself ; the news seemed almost too good to be true, and it was some short time before we could believe it and realise our luck.
The officers went to their companies, and told them there would be work for them next day, though the actual arrangements were kept secret. A thrill of excitement ran through the Brigade. 'By Jove, what sport!' said a midshipman. ' What luck !' said an officer o! marines. ' Is it really true, sir ?' asked a company sergeant, radiant with the anticipation of an infantry job; every one felt a sense of subdued joy and satisfaction that something was going to happen to-morrow. The only people that night who did not share equally in the good news were the fifty bluejackets manning the guns on the railway, who would have to stay with them, and would not be able to take part in the infantry attack.
The men lay down by their arms and the officers in groups of two and three, but sleep was long in coming, fitful and but little refreshing when it came.
The night was very cold; the wagon with our blankets, great coats, and waterproof sheets had lost its way in the darkness and could not be found; it was impossible to find a spot where we could lie down without resting on the sharp corner of some rock, and in our thin cotton khaki we shivered through the night. It was our first experience of a very cold night after a hot day, and without our blankets we did not enjoy it.
The picket in the right rear was relieved at 11 P.M.
Saturday, November 25.—The picket was withdrawn at 2.80 A.M. and the Brigade stood to arms at 8 A.M. Magazines were charged and rifles carefully examined. This being done we marched silently down to the place of assembly and were joined by the cavalry, mounted infantry, and the K.O.Y.L.I, the remainder of the 9th Brigade forming up in rear and the Guards in charge of the baggage. At 8.45 A.M. an advance was made in mass of quarter-column, the spaces between companies being slightly opened out. The mounted troops bore away to the flanks, and in the growing daylight we could just make out a hill ahead of us which we imagined was our objective and on which we could see a few figures moving against the sky-line. As we drew nearer a murmur of disappointment ran through the ranks, for these moving figures turned out to be our own scouts and we were afraid our chance had gone.
However, the Boer position was not nearly reached yet.
The whole Division advanced parallel to and about a mile on the right of the railway, the cavalry well away on the flanks, the two field batteries well to the front, and the Naval Brigade proudly leading the infantry. Slowly puffing along the line on our left was the armoured train, with the naval 12- pounders on trucks behind it, and away on our right the sun was just appearing over the horizon.
The air was delightfully cool and bracing, and we marched over the veldt at a steady pace, the 'going' being very good. Occasionally we halted for a few minutes.
After marching for a couple of hours the scouts came in touch with the enemy and found their main body strongly posted in a position very similar to that at Belmont, except that the line of kopjes they held was broken in their left centre and the kopjes themselves did not run so high. The extent of the position was about three miles from flank to flank, running eastwards at right angles to the railway. The right flank was beautifully drawn back, and the field of fire commanded was, if possible, more nearly approaching the ideal than even that at Belmont, with splendid opportunities for posting and concealing guns amongst the rocks, whilst attacking artillery had no commanding positions to seize and would have to unlimber in the open. There was not the slightest cover for an attacking force except for an occasional ant-hill dotted here and there over the veldt, which extended for thousands of yards round the front and flank and was covered with rank brown grass about eighteen inches high.
Away on the enemy's extreme left stood a boulder-strewn kopje, higher than the rest, a fortress in itself. It appeared to be almost isolated, but we found later that a low-lying spur, covered with great rocks, ran out towards and a little in front of it from the central kopje, and gave splendid cover for a deadly cross-fire as we advanced to the attack.
Its strength and size were such that it evidently formed the key of the position, and it was against it that the attack was ultimately pushed home.
A field battery now galloped out and commenced shelling it at a range of about 2,500 yards. On our left the naval guns and the other battery were also in action and were being vigorously replied to by two Boer guns.
Thus about seven o'clock — we had already marched for three hours it must be remembered— the general position was as follows. The Naval Brigade, extended to single rank, leading, and the 9th Brigade, similarly extended in support, were opposite the right centre of the Boer position and distant about 8,600 yards. The Guards' Brigade was guarding the baggage on the railway, the cavalry were hovering round the enemy's right to intercept their retreat, one battery and the naval guns were busy on our left, and the second battery far away on our right flank was pouring shrapnel over that isolated kopje on the Boer left.
At this point the intended attack on the Boer left flank commenced to develop. The Naval Brigade, now extended to four paces, the K.O.Y.L.I. and the half-battalion of Royal North Lancasters were ordered to move away to the right, and the remainder of the 9th Brigade, consisting of the Northumberlands and Northamptons, pushed on, straight ahead, for the centre of the enemy's position, to demonstrate against this point and to act as a containing force.
Slowly we laboured across the front of the kopjes whilst the guns merrily pounded away, and extended as we were in a line about eight hundred yards long, perhaps longer, this diagonal march of nearly two miles was very tedious.
Not quite certain why this movement was taking place, for only the commanding officers knew exactly what we were intended to do, we trudged along through the coarse grass, keeping our left shoulders well up to avoid the ugly rocky kopjes in our immediate front. The sun was beginning to be very hot and we were becoming somewhat ‘droopy,' as no one had had any breakfast, except a few who had been wise enough to save a little biscuit or bread from their supper over night, and we had been marching already for three hours and a half. The men were taking frequent ' pulls' at their water bottles, and the advice to ' Save your water, men, you'll want it presently' had not much effect. Lucky were those who still had a little two hours later.
Now and then a greis-buck would get up and scamper down the line; and sometimes a covey of frightened partridges would remind us that we had rifles in our hands, not shot-guns.
We glanced at the kopjes and almost wondered why the guns poured such a tempest of shrapnel over them; rarely did we catch sight of a figure moving among the rocks, and with the exception of the enemy's guns on their right, vigorously replying to our own, the whole position looked harmless and untenanted.
At 7.45 we were some seven hundred yards from the base of the isolated kopje on the Boer left, and the field battery ceased firing. Almost immediately from the rocks, which a moment before seemed lifeless, there opened the wild crackle of Mausers.
Bang! Bang! the battery commenced again, firing over our heads. Even now our firing line was continuing its diagonal march, but at the moment we heard the crackle of musketry and the whistling of bullets each man instinctively turned to his front and the line paused.
Captain B. C. Prothero, B.N., led the advance, and Major J. H. Plumbe, B.M.L.I., Captain A. E. Marchant, R.M.L.I., and Colour-Sergeant Dyson were in advance of the various marine companies.
Midshipman T. F. J. L. Wardle acted as A.D.C. to Major Plumbe and accompanied that officer. In some places the line was somewhat crowded and ' bunched ’ but the average extension was about four paces.
As supports, there were seven companies of the K.O.Y.L.I., which later on reinforced the right of the firing line, and in reserve, the half-battalion of the Royal North Lancasters.
The composition of the firing line from right to left was as follows:
1 Company of Bluejackets (55 men)
Comm. A. P. Ethelston.
Lieut. Hon. E. S. H. Boyle
Gunner E. E. Lowe
Midship. C. A. E. Huddart
Midship W. W.Sillem
‘A’ Company RMA. .. Captain Guy Senior
‘B’ Company RMLI Lieut. W. T.C.Jones
1C' Company RMLI Lieut. F. J. Saunders. 190 men (all 3 companies)
1 Company of K.O.Y.L.1 85
Total strength of firing line 880
The Brigade paused and half wondered what all this crackling going on in front meant; there was a sound of whistling in the air, and instinctively we raised our left arms as if to protect our faces from a hail storm.
Advance! Advance! And on we went at the 'quick'; the crackling grew fiercer and we looked anxiously to see if any one was hit.
Down dropped three men, falling forward; ' Get up!' shouted an officer, but only one rose and he was dazed and bleeding from the back of the neck—a shrapnel had burst overhead.
A few paces forward and the line sank down;
officers shouted the distance—600 yards ; non-commissioned officers gave, ' Volleys ! Ready ! Present! Fire!' and those of the men who heard obeyed. Fire control was, however, almost impossible; the men were too far apart and the noise of the enemy's fire drowned all orders.
Officers and men quickly grasped the situation and used their rifles independently. This was our first halt after coming under fire, and from here onwards the attack took the form of a succession of short rushes.
The line worked automatically, firing, rushing on and dropping down to fire again. Men advanced, crouching low, some holding their water bottles in their left hands, ready to moisten their lips at the next halt; the scorching heat and overwhelming excitement had parched our throats, and each drop of water gave us strength for another spring.
As the line halted each man threw himself at full length on the ground, drew himself to a tuft of grass, loaded his rifle, adjusted his sight and fired at the top of the kopje. Only an occasional head was visible there, and it is an extraordinary fact that, though under fire for the first time, many men, in order to make their aim more accurate, actually lowered their sights frequently as they advanced, disregarding the rule laid down of fixed sights below 500 yards, and thus displaying a most unexpected coolness during a period of intense excitement.
The Boer fire was hottest between 500 and 200 yards—a short-range fire in front from the crest of the hill sending down a continual stream of bullets— ploughing up the ground all round us, splashing against stones and rocks, and flying by with a shriek, or whistling past us with a noise like the crack of a whip. But a far more deadly cross-fire swept the line from our left. This came from the before-mentioned rocky spur jutting out from the central kopjes, and down to which the Boers had poured, to reinforce their left, and to get away from the fire of the guns near the railway.
Here they were unmolested, except for an occasional shell, and could use their rifles with deliberation.
Most of our casualties took place whilst dashing on; some were shot as they lay firing, all remained helpless where they were struck down on the open veldt and frequently were hit again and again as they lay. Those who could do so dragged themselves to an ant-heap or tuft of grass and waited for the next bullet to hit them. Others, regardless of wounds, struggled on till brought down by another.
The officers lost heavily. Commander Ethelston, Major Plumbe and Captain Senior were shot dead, Captain Prothero, R.N., and Lieut. Jones were both severely wounded, and Midshipman Huddart was mortally wounded whilst struggling to advance after being twice hit.
Nearly all the petty officers and non-commissioned officers were killed or wounded, but the line still advanced without the slightest wavering. One may well ask how the men were led ?
Drill books have taught that men should not lie down during the last 500 yards of the attack, because of the supposed impossibility, once they had laid down, of making them rise and face a short-range magazine fire.
It is certain, however, that the whole attack would have been swept away if they had remained on their feet continually, and there was no difficulty whatever in making them ' rise up' again. They wanted no leading; they were only too anxious to close with the enemy and get it over; many, in fact, had to be restrained to prevent the line losing its cohesion. If an officer sprang up, all his men followed like clockwork ; there was no hesitation, and so it continued till the foot of the kopje was reached.
Here we were to a great extent sheltered by die very steepness of the kopje, and paused to take breath in this ' dead space' the bullets flying past well overhead. Whilst we waited, our supports of the K.O.Y.L.I. rushed across the fire-swept belt we had just crossed and reinforced our right, bayonets were fixed, and on we went again.
Climbing was difficult and we had in places to haul ourselves up on hands and knees, painfully and slowly. The frontal fire never ceased till we were within twenty-five yards of the top, and then we knew the Boers thought it was time to quit. With a last scramble and rush we gained the crest only to find the enemy flying down the other side.
We still had to keep under cover, for they gained the shelter of some rocks a few hundred yards in rear of the kopje they had just vacated, and opened fire. We were also again enfiladed from the left, but two companies of supports, swinging round their right and manning the left of the kopje, completely commanded the rocky spur to which the Boers were still clinging, and quickly drove them out.
The only thing now to be done by infantry was to dislodge the few Boers who remained to cover the main retreat. This was done by men of various corps, but luckily for the enemy they were partially screened in this retreat by the smaller kopjes, and, as they had already jumped on their horses and obtained a good start, they got away almost unscathed until they were at long range, when a few probably useless volleys were sent after them. They had purposely galloped through the dam (pond)—the only water supply—to stir up the mud and spoil it for drinking.
Officers and men were terribly disappointed at not closing with them, and still more so when their wagons and baggage could be seen trekking northwards across the open veldt as fast as they could go, and we were powerless to stop them. The batteries galloped round and fired a few shrapnel, but did little damage, and the cavalry horses were in such poor condition that they had to give up the pursuit.
Meanwhile the remnant of the Naval Brigade assembled under Captain Marchant, R.M.L.I., the senior unwounded officer present, and the work of collecting the wounded and burying the dead commenced.
Many were the anxious inquiries for those who no longer answered to their names. They lay in little brown patches, dotted over the veldt at the foot of the dearly-won kopje, some dead, others with life fast ebbing, most of them helpless with wounds. Looking down from the top of the kopje we could see the surgeons and their orderlies already moving amongst them, stopping at each prostrate khaki figure to give first aid, or turning it over to make certain that life was extinct and passing on to the next. Many that day owed their lives to Fleet Surgeon Porter and his stoker stretcher-bearers, who had followed close in rear of the firing line, and had done their work under the hottest fire.
Already the collecting-place for the wounded had been formed, and backwards and forwards toiled the stretcher men, in the terrible heat, with their human burdens.
Now, down from the kopje, came the survivors to look after their messmates and lend a hand in getting them to the ambulance. ' For God's sake, a drop of water!' was each man's cry; one, mortally wounded and with one arm smashed, unable to pull out the stopper, had bitten off the metal neck of his water-bottle in the agony of thirst and pain.
As they found a messmate they would ask,’What's up, Towney ?'
'They've got me' would be the reply, and the injured part proudly pointed out.
The number of marvellous escapes had been very great. There was scarcely an officer or man who had not had his clothes or accoutrements shot through ; one officer, over six feet high and very broad, had four bullets through his uniform without being even scratched.
The marines of the Brigade added that day yet another leaf to the laurel wreath, the badge of their corps. They had lost two officers and nine men killed, and one officer and seventy-two men wounded (including eleven non-com.'s) out of a strength of five officers and 190 men: or a percentage loss of 44.[ The company of K.O.Y.L.I. forming the extreme left of the line suffered very severely and lost all their officers. It is said that, being found by their Major, uncertain what to do, or where to go, he sang out, ' Come along, my Orphans' and the name stuck to them. Private Doran, R.M.L.I., Major Plumbe's servant, died of his wounds on the way down to Simonstown.]
The bluejackets had not suffered so severely, losing two officers and two men killed, and one officer and five men wounded: a percentage of 18.1. This was to be accounted for by the fact that they were further from the very accurate cross-fire which swept the line.
The cause of this excessive loss was explained by Lord Methuen in his despatch: ' the Naval Brigade attacked in too close formation’
Perhaps as the kopje was peak-shaped every man individually took the summit as his point of direction, and so closed in on the centre.
It must be remembered that neither the bluejackets nor marines, who took part in the assault on this position, were specially selected men, but were chosen haphazard from several ships on the Cape station, and were simply a fair sample of the men composing the crews of our ships all the world over. Those remaining would willingly have changed places with them and would have done every whit as well as they did.
While the greater part of the Brigade were doing infantry work on the right, the remainder, consisting of fifty bluejackets under Lieutenant Dean, with Lieutenant Campbell and Midshipman Armstrong, were working the 12-pounders on the extreme left.
Extracts from the report of Lieutenant Dean give a concise and vivid account of his share in the day's work. The report was published in the 'London Gazette' March 30, 1900. Short notes, in some explanation, are inserted in brackets. In it he says:
Arrived at Graspan [the station] at 5.45 A.M., and observing the enemy, in an apparently strong position 5,000 yards in advance, I detrained two guns—not having enough men to handle more—and at 5.65 A.M. fired one round to test the range.
[The mule teams of these guns had been lent to the Field Artillery, and consequently fifty men were only just sufficient to both haul and fight the two guns.]
I then waited till the Royal Artillery with six guns took up a position on my right front and opened fire on the enemy. I did the same, and subsequently advanced to ranges of 4,000, and ultimately 2,800 yards, acting from time to time on requests I received from the officer commanding Royal Artillery who was attacking the same position, viz. two strongly fortified kopjes on either side of the railway, with a well-protected gun in each.
About 8 A.M. I received verbal orders to retire from my position, as the Royal Artillery were about to move away to the right, and it would be untenable for my two guns. The Royal Artillery were already moving off when I got the order, and the Boer guns, having got our range accurately, were pouring on us such an effective shrapnel fire, that I judged it impossible to carry out the order without either leaving the guns or suffering very heavy losses, both amongst our own men and the company of Royal Engineers who were helping us, if we attempted to retreat with them.
[The field battery was still able, though it had already lost several horses, to 'limber up' and retire in a few moments, but the two naval guns could only be very slowly dragged to the rear by their own gun's crews aided by the Engineers.]
I therefore continued to fire as briskly as possible at the Boer guns, with such effect that we continuously put them out of action, first one and then the other for as much as fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. Their shells burst with the utmost accuracy, and both our guns and ammunition trolley were spattered all over with shrapnel balls; but owing to my system of making all hands lie down when we saw their guns flash, and remain till the shell burst and the balls flew by, we had only six men wounded, when, at 9.80 A.M. the Boers finally ceased firing and abandoned their position.
[The Boers had left standing certain telegraph posts along the line and knew their exact ranges; this fact accounts for their accurate fire and for the quickness with which they found the different ranges as the guns advanced along the railway, alongside which they were obliged to remain on account of the ammunition trolley.]
[The fire was so accurate, that an officer with the company of Royal Engineers supporting them, stated that very frequently both guns and crews were hidden from view by the dust raised as the shrapnel balls struck the ground, and that he was surprised to see a single man unhurt each time it blew away.]
To the above extracts it must be added that every man with the guns did his duty exceedingly well, and special praise, if any individual selection must be made, should be awarded to the two No. l's, who laid their guns with the greatest coolness and accuracy, showing no more excitement than they would at an annual prize-firing or quarterly target practice on board ship, though so heavily handicapped by engaging an entrenched and cunningly concealed enemy whilst they themselves were entirely exposed on the open veldt.
Thus was fought the action of Graspan (or Enslin), in which the Naval Brigade took so considerable a share.
The approach of the relieving army towards Kimberley was now opened up as far as Modder River.W. T. C. JONES.