AFTER GRASPAN—THE QUEEN'S TELEGRAM—ADVANCE TO MODDER RIVER—THE BATTLE—HALT FOB A FEW DAYS—ARRIVAL OF A 4.7 NAVAL GUN—MAGERSFONTEIN—A CHECK.
FROM the bravely won hill the remnant of the Naval Brigade marched to Enslin Station and bivouacked. Here Lord Methuen visited us, saw the men and congratulated them on their splendid gallantry, making very touching allusions to the killed and wounded.
Colonel Money of the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, who commanded the whole firing line and led the attack, also came to congratulate and condole. The men killed were buried near the foot of the kopje, but the three officers were buried next morning at Enslin, a little east of the siding there, on a bare, red plain; a pity almost that they should not have remained with the men who had fallen with them and beneath the shadow of the hill they had laid down their lives to gain.
Our men put up a rough, wooden cross, and the Australian Light Horse fenced the grave in, a deed for which the Navy will be for ever grateful.
A very sad evening was spent by the remnant of the Brigade, for our casualties had been great. Only three officers who took part in the attack had escaped injury. Some incidents which occurred to the Writer at the top of the kopje after its capture are worth relating. One wounded man was heard to say that he would not mind being wounded so much if he had only been able to see his enemy and get a shot at him. Another good old soldier, his thigh fractured by a bullet, was seen sitting down, quietly licking each bullet before putting it into his rifle, just as old soldiers were accustomed to do in the Martini-Henry days, and shooting away steadily.
The Boers were still keeping up a heavy fire from the rear of their position, and the Writer was ordering a man to take shelter and reply to this fire, when he heard a bullet strike very close. The man seemed not to realise the order and appeared dazed. In a few seconds he came up and said, ' Beg pardon, sir, I didn't understand and I feel all over numb.'
He was asked if he had been hit but did not think so, though, on examining him, it was found he had been shot clean through the body—evidently hit whilst the order was being given.
Shortly afterwards, whilst the Writer was collecting men to drive these Boers out of it—a very ticklish piece of work—somebody sang out 'All right, sir, we're coming along,' and, turning round, he saw with relief the ' bad hat' of the company, following him closely and ‘ seeing red' as they say in books. His bad record was wiped out that day and no one prouder of the fact than he, or more ready to ' go a bust' again directly this little job was over.
The Bear-Admiral telegraphed promoting Captain Marchant to Major, pending the decision of the
Admiralty, and appointing him to command the Naval Brigade until the arrival of a senior officer. This was a great honour, for seldom has an officer of the Royal Marines had the good fortune to command a naval brigade in action. He was the senior un-wounded officer after the fight.
A telegram from Her Majesty the Queen, through the Rear-Admiral, was also much appreciated by the Naval Brigade, and was read to them at a special parade: ' The Queen desires that you will convey to the Naval Brigade, who were present at the action at Graspan, Her Majesty's congratulations on their gallant conduct. At the same time express the Queen's regret at the losses sustained by the Brigade.'
Meanwhile the wounded had been despatched to Simonstown in the ambulance train; and Kimberley was still waiting to be relieved.
The Boers, driven back from Belmont and Graspan, had fallen back to the Modder River, entrenching themselves on both banks astride of the railway, the bridge over the river having already been destroyed.
We only halted for one day at Enslin, and on November 27 the force moved forwards, the Naval Brigade going by train to Clockfontein, where they bivouacked close to the railway.
We entrained at 4.30 next morning and proceeded under escort of the armoured train to a dip a mile and a half further on, detraining men, guns, and ammunition, and taking up a position west of the line on a low crest, the only good position for naval guns, 4,800 yards from the banks of the Modder.
Just after sunrise the infantry were all in position, and at 5.40 A.M. the battle began. The enemy got our range at once, sending three shells over us and among the wagons. Luckily the shells did not burst and no damage was done, but we thought we were going to have a very warm time of it. Our guns promptly engaged these guns, well hidden in small emplacements, and temporarily silenced two of them.
The marine escort was all the time well extended and hidden as much as possible, lying down on the hot ground.
The field artillery boldly advanced over the crest, and came into action under a long range rifle and pom-pom fire, whilst the infantry, also sweeping down from this crest in extended order, bravely advanced to within 800 yards of the river, but could go no further, for the rifle and pom-pom fire from the banks and trenches was terrific. They simply lay down and hugged the ground as closely as possible. The Highlanders suffered terribly from the sun—it became a terribly hot day, and the backs of many of their knees were burnt so badly, that afterwards, many of them could hardly walk.
It was difficult to see any Boers, or to see the result of our shooting, so presently the four naval guns moved forward to try and find a better position ; as they came over the crest they too came under a hot Mauser and pom-pom fire, and the position not being more favourable and the risk to guns and crews much greater, they retired again, keeping up a brisk fire.
Late in the afternoon a field battery arrived, having made a tremendous forced march, and though evidently pretty well played out, most gallantly went into action on our left, and materially supported our left flanking movement. A few companies managed to get across the river in this part of the field, and the effect on the enemy was immediately seen in the reduction of fire. Just about this time Lord Methuen was wounded, and the infantry who had crossed were recalled.
Night fell and no one knew quite whether we were victors or not. The fact that our men had been able to cross the river, however, decided the enemy to wait no longer, and in the morning we woke to find them gone and their guns with them.
The day had been terribly hot and every man in the force was pretty well exhausted by the end of the day—practically no water being obtainable all through those scorching hot fourteen hours of fighting. The infantry were certainly too much distressed to make a night attack with the bayonet, and the enemy slipped away comparatively unscathed.
At daybreak the army moved down to the river and occupied both banks, the Naval Brigade doing themselves rather well, by taking up a position close to the little hotel, the billiard room of which the officers used as their mess.
Our shrapnel fire must have been wonderfully effective, for hardly a tree but had its bark scored or branches torn off, and the few houses standing were simply riddled. Judging by the number of Boer horses killed the enemy must have suffered considerably, though only a few dead were found, and it was supposed, at the time, that more had been sunk in the river.
The position they had occupied was one of extraordinary natural strength, and in the hands of disciplined troops ought to have been almost impregnable.
Whilst here Com. de Horsey (H.M.S.' Monarch') arrived to fill poor Com. Ethelston's place and took over the command of the Brigade. He brought with him reinforcements to fill the vacancies caused at Graspan.
The general idea was to move on Jacobsdal, capture the town, and at the same time hold the railway and the river between, but on reconnoitring the position to which the enemy had retired, it was found to be too strong to leave in front of such a widely extended front, which we should not be strong enough to hold in much force, so the original plan was dropped, and the next thing to do was to turn him out.
Whilst we waited to bring up supplies, rest the troops and reconnoitre, the Boers were busily entrenching themselves on the Magersfontein Hills, and it became evident that much more heavy artillery was needed. Lord Methuen therefore telegraphed to the Bear-Admiral asking for a naval 4.7 gun—one was in readiness in the dockyard at Simonstown, mounted on a travelling carriage—and it arrived in due course and was taken north of the river. Daily it bombarded the Boer trenches with lyddite and common shell.
About this time Captain Bearcroft, R.N., H.M.S. ' Philomel,' arrived to take command of the Brigade, and Major Urmston, R.M.L.I., H.M.S. 'Powerful,' took over the marines.
On December 9 a reconnaissance in force was made, the 4.7 advancing and vigorously shelling the trenches, though it was not successful in making the Boers unmask their guns.
Then came December 11, and the battle of Magersfontein, when the projected assault at daybreak failed and the Highland Brigade lost so heavily. The 4.7 shelled the trenches at long range, but could not do the work of six guns, and failed to keep down the enemy's fire; and though maintaining their ground all night, the infantry had to fall back upon the river next day, their sufferings from thirst having again been very great.
The naval 12-pounders and a marine escort were left on the south of the river to protect the new deviation bridge and the accumulated stores.
The night after the fight was a time of the utmost anxiety for these four guns and their feeble escort, for but few other men were available, they were cut off from an exhausted army by the river, and had an enormous quantity of stores to protect, which it ought to have been the enemy's primary object to destroy. Luckily they wanted the pluck and dash to do so. If they had—and we all fully expected them to try—we should have had our work cut out to keep them off. Our relief when morning broke was intense. During the morning and before the army fell back, swarms of locusts were mistaken for the dust of an approaching commando, and caused much anxiety.A. E. MARCHANT,