A great chain of kopjes barred the horizon ahead of us, and we came to the usual conclusion that the Boers were opposing our advance. It is well to remember that Lord Roberts's army was not marching in a single column, but in three separate columns, of which the Cavalry Division was marching on a road about six miles to the north, and the Seventh Division by a road about four miles to the south of the main body. General French was a day's march ahead of the main army, and on this morning he reached Abraham's Kraal (the most northerly hill of the chain held by the Boers) at ten o'clock, while the Ninth Division did not arrive until four o'clock. It will thus be seen that one end of the position was a couple of hours' ride distant from the other and far out of sight of it.
No one saw the whole of the battle of Dreifontein. General French, when he arrived at ten in the morning, came into contact with the Boers at Abraham's Kraal, and (the river preventing a turning movement on the north) he sent the second cavalry brigade galloping southward down the line of the kopjes in order to turn, if possible, the enemy's left flank. But he soon found that the position extended too far southward to be assailable by his limited forces. This turning movement, or rather the preparation for it, was carried out under an extremely heavy fire from pom-poms and other quick-firing guns. Finding that his resources would be exhausted in drawing out the long containing thread necessary to hold the enemy in front, and so leave nothing with which to make a flank attack, General French contented himself with engaging the enemy on the northernmost end of their position.
At half-past one the Sixth Division arrived at Dreifontein, a farmhouse about seven miles south of Abraham's Kraal. I had ridden hard in order to catch them up as I had been in the early morning with the Ninth Division, which did not arrive until four o'clock, and when I came up I was just in time to see the Buffs, leading the 13th Brigade, preparing to clear some kopjes near the main ridge which were held by the Boers. Things were very hot here, and as I had never been in a big fight before I found it very difficult to realise what was going on, or where the enemy was, or where the fire was coming from, or at what point it was being directed. All I knew for some time was that there were shells dropping rather closer than was pleasant, and that with a rashness born of ignorance I had got into a place where everyone had to lie down for cover.
When your face is in the sand you do not see much. What you hear is not encouraging—the distant boom of a gun, a few seconds' silence, then a long quavering whistle in the air, like the cry of a banshee, growing every moment nearer and louder, and finally the deafening report somewhere near you. You never know where a shell is going to burst, although you hear it long before it arrives; you can only sit tight and hope that it will go where the other fellows are, or better still where no one is. To say truth, shells generally go where no one is; I saw only one man killed by a shell. I had raised my head from the ground and was listening for the burst of a coming shell, when I saw a man among the advance ranks of the 13th Brigade on my right stop suddenly in the midst of a blinding flash. An arm and hand flew through the air in a horrible curve; the smoke belched, the air was rent by the explosion, the smoke blew and drifted away, and there on the hillside lay what was left of the man, folded in the deep quietness of death.
A little to the left the Welsh Regiment was advancing up the steep side of Alexander's kopje, which was doubly enfiladed by the Boer guns; two Elswicks firing from the east and a Vickers-Maxim from the south-west. There was also a nasty rain of bullets. In the long semi-circular skirmishing line, strung like a girdle round the hillside, a man suddenly turned and ran backwards for half a dozen paces, and then tumbled, rolling over and over like a shot rabbit. I saw him five minutes later when his body was brought to the dressing-station; he had been shot through the heart. Poor fellow! He ran not of his own conscious volition; he was killed while bravely advancing; he died while retreating. The Welsh Regiment was losing badly all this time, and the ground was becoming dotted with writhing and motionless bodies; it was a horrible sight and came near to turning me sick, so I resolved to go and see what was happening on the south side.
I made a long detour round by the headquarter farmhouse towards which the black mass of the Ninth Division was advancing across the plain—too late, as it turned out, to join in the action. Seeing a kopje on our extreme right from which our artillery seemed to be firing, I rode in that direction. There was not a soul in sight; and when I was within a thousand yards of the place the instinct which so often interferes to keep our heads from betraying us made me pull up. There was not a sound except the far-away bang of guns and rifles. Near to the kopje there was a garden surrounded by low trees and a hedge of prickly pear. The sun setting behind us slanted into it and made it appear as a charming, peaceful shelter from the dust and noise of the battle. I was still debating with myself as to whether I should go on a little farther when I heard behind me the sound of a horse galloping. I turned round and saw, perhaps two miles behind me, three mounted men. The one who now rode up had evidently just left them. He was a trooper in Rimington's Guides.
"Beg pardon, sir," he said, "but I wouldn't stay here if I was you."
"Why not?" said the Green One; "no one in front, is there?"
The man spat on the ground.
"Don't know that there is, sir," he said, "but then I don't know that there isn't, and that's good enough for me. If there is anyone in that garden"—and he pointed to the patch of trees—"you bet they won't send out a flag of truce asking you to get out of the way before they shoot. We've been sent to round up cattle out of that there garden, but I believe the cattle are all a blind. Anyway, I'm not going near it till I'm sure of it. I believe it's a trap."
They must have been watching us from the garden with their eyes on the sights of their rifles, for no sooner had we turned our horses' heads than bang, bang, bang, bang—phtt, phtt, phtt, phtt! We doubled ourselves on our saddles and our horses stretched along the road, while for perhaps thirty seconds our ears twitched to a hail of bullets that lasted until we were out of range. While we were still racing my pony, which was last, suddenly jumped into the air and shot past the big cavalry horse, laying herself flat on the ground like a hare; and it was not until she had carried me far out of range that I found the warm blood from a bullet wound running down her leg. I had no further interest that day but to have her attended to. At any rate, I think the shot which was fired at her was one of the last fired in the battle of Dreifontein.
The battle was fought on Saturday, March 10th. On Sunday morning we found that the Boers had melted away from before us, and the army marched on twelve miles to Aasvögel's Kop. On Monday the main body was at Venters Vlei; and at four o'clock that afternoon General French, after an artillery engagement, occupied a few hills commanding Bloemfontein, and sent in an ultimatum requiring the surrender of the town within twenty-four hours.
Early on Tuesday morning Mr. Gwynne (Reuter's correspondent), Mr. Oppenheim, of the Daily News, and another correspondent, rode into Bloemfontein and found that President Steyn had departed during the night, that the Boer forces had retired from the immediate neighbourhood of the town, and that the people were willing to surrender. They rode back to Lord Roberts (who was by this time well under weigh with his column), escorting the Landdrost in his Cape cart. The Field Marshal was, I believe, sitting on a low hill having breakfast with his staff when the keys were delivered up to him. This formality was conducted with the utmost courtesy and good-humour, and when it was over the march was resumed. Lord Roberts rode on and joined the cavalry, and a procession was formed about three miles out of the town, Lord Roberts at the head of the cavalry brigade which preceded the army. I shall never forget that ride down the sloping country into Bloemfontein; the little white-haired man sitting his horse like a rock, leading; then the personal staff; then the general staff; then the foreign attachés; then the correspondents; then the cavalry staff; then the cavalry; then the main body of the army—artillery, infantry, engineers, commissariat, and baggage.
As we came into the first street of the town it was apparent that the day was regarded as a festival. One could hardly imagine a stranger reception of an invader. Flags flew at every window, and the people were all decked out as though for a holiday. Half-way towards the Presidency there was a little diversion. Some Kaffirs, thinking that this was a good opportunity of paying off old scores, had begun to loot and pillage a large building like a school-house, which belonged to the Free State Government. As we swung round the corner of the street they were in the act of bundling out mattresses, bedsteads, linen, chairs, desks, and tables, and carrying them off. A few dozen Lancers were let loose amongst them; they dropped their booty and fled, only to be driven back at the point of a lance and made to replace the stolen property. Then the march was resumed until the procession drew up in front of the Presidency. The Federal flag had been struck some time before, and the flagstaff now stood gaunt and undecorated. There was a pause of about ten minutes while Lord Roberts went in and transacted some necessary formalities; then the little silk Union Jack, made by Lady Roberts, was run up to the truck amid a great sound of cheering. The singing of the National Anthem ended the ceremony. The town seemed altogether English—English shops, English manners, the English language, and English faces. All that day enthusiasm bubbled in the town like water boiling in a pot; all day the troops continued to march in; shabby and dusty and dirty and tired, they were nevertheless all stamped with some nameless quality which they had not when they left England. All day the population of Bloemfontein eddied through the streets like a crowd at a fair; all day the sounds of rejoicing continued, and far into the night the streets resounded to the cries of people who made merry.