Lord Methuen had not long to wait for occupation. As soon as he arrived at Boshof he posted his pickets on every possible point of vantage, and patrolled the neighbourhood of Boshof over a wide circumference; and he was rewarded. The little engagement at Tweefontein was, we all hoped, an auspicious beginning for Lord Methuen's advance. If one might apply the word to military tactics, it was as artistic a piece of work as could be. I do not remember a single mistake or an instance of anything less well or less quickly done than was possible. The result was a raising of everyone's spirits, and I thought that Lord Methuen himself had the air of a man emerging from depression. Certainly no general was better liked by those around him, and, in spite of all mischievous gossip to the contrary, he was perfectly trusted by his officers and men.
On Friday morning, April 6th, a native guide came in with information that the enemy had a laager at a farm called Tweefontein, nine miles south-east of Boshof. In ten minutes Major Streatfeild had his horse packed and saddled and was off to the Yeomanry camp. Now the Yeomanry horses were out on the plain grazing a good mile away; yet from the time when the order was given until the moment of starting exactly thirty-five minutes elapsed—a performance that would not have disgraced veterans. The artillery and the Kimberley Mounted Corps (an excellent force, although not so well horsed as the Yeomanry) were ready in the same time, and the force started in the following order: Scouts of the Kimberley Mounted Corps; advance guard ditto; Staff; Imperial Yeomanry, under Lord Chesham; Fourth Company Royal Artillery; Kimberley Mounted Corps, under Lieut.-Colonel Peakman.
When the force was within three miles of Tweefontein the scouts returned, stating that the only kopje in the neighbourhood was held by the enemy. The native guides had led us by an excellent road and with absolute accuracy, and the enemy had no idea of our presence until we came up over the ridge and showed our force in the centre. Lord Methuen then developed his attack, which, as the kopje was isolated, was on the simple plan of a centre with two extending wings. There was a delay in the centre until Captain Rolleston's (Lieutenant-Colonel commanding Nottinghamshire Yeomanry) company, under Lord Scarborough, could get into position on the left. The enemy opened fire without delay, so the Yeomanry had to make a wide detour. Meanwhile the centre was held back while the Kimberley Mounted Corps, under Colonel Peakman, were sent to the right, where they found cover in a ridge of very low kopjes.
When both flanks were in position the main body of Yeomanry dismounted and advanced towards the kopje in extended order. Now was their time. You must remember that this was their baptism of fire, and everyone was on the look-out for signs of "greenness"; everyone had more or less been making fun of them in a mild way, and prophesying all sorts of disaster. As they advanced the bullets began to pipe on the edge of the firing-zone, but there was not a bit of change in the Yeomanry when they came under fire. I know from experience how disconcerting it is to ride into the zone of fire, and walking must be much worse. It is not half so bad when you are fairly in; it is like wading into a cold and shallow sea instead of plunging—a kind of shivering sensation, most unpleasant. Well, they went through this nasty belt as coolly as you please—no hurry or funk. They dropped like wax when the order came to lie down, and fired steadily.
The whole of our little field was now under fire, and the cavalry on each side were keeping the Boers very busy. All the time the right and left flanks were opening out and reaching towards each other behind the kopje. The only disappointment was that the artillery could not get to work; the rise of the ground was so great and we had covered the position so completely that it was rather dangerous to attempt shelling. For about two hours there was hot firing, and every now and then there was a little work for our ambulance people, but not much. The only noticeable evidence of inexperience on the part of the Yeomanry was that they did not realise—and no one can realise this when fighting the Boers for the first time—how great is the enemy's firing range, and how far away one must keep to be able to live at all. They kept pressing forward, and Major Streatfeild had to ride across from the General under a very hot fire to tell them to keep back.
Towards the end of the engagement there was a gap in front of the artillery position, and the guns spoke. They got the range at once, and fired three rounds of shrapnel, and a few minutes after the third round had been fired a white flag was waved from the hill. Silence fell like a shadow over the place that had been crackling with fire a minute before; people who had been lying flat on the ground stood up and stretched themselves; and in the midst of the silence a shot cracked from the hill, and there was a rush of men towards a prostrate body on our side. Then another shot cracked—from our side this time; the treacherous Boer, I was told, fell dead, and the action was over.
We captured fifty-two prisoners, and the Boers had eight killed and six wounded. No one escaped. They all laid down their arms and surrendered, handing over also a cart of dynamite. From this it was gathered that General Villebois (who was killed) had been trying to get behind us to the railway line near Modder River, where he hoped to destroy it. I spoke to some of the prisoners next day—Frenchmen, many of them, and nice enough fellows. I heard then something which gave me pause with regard to the white flag. When the thing happened it appeared to be a flagrant and indubitable case of treachery; everyone was speaking of it. But one of the prisoners, in talking to me, referred to the "rascal" who showed the flag.
"We had no intention to surrender," he said; "no order was given; that worm had a flag in his pocket, and he held it up; poor —— (mentioning the man who shot and was killed) probably never saw it. It's a wonder half of us did not go on firing."
I give this statement for what it is worth. "All lies" was the comment of some of the officers there, and quite possibly they were right; but quite possibly also they were wrong, and the whole thing was an accident. At least one may learn a lesson from it. I hated to believe it, but I believed it to be treachery. Now it turns out that I may have been unjust, and possibly on a dozen other occasions the same sort of involuntary injustice may have been done to our enemies. Certainly it is much easier for soldiers to see a small conspicuous object when it is displayed by the enemy than when it is displayed by one of their own side. The men on either side are intent upon watching the other side, not their own.
In General Villebois de Mareuil's pocket was found a note-book containing a cleverly planned diagram of an attack on Boshof, and when the sun was setting he was buried in the town he had hoped to enter victoriously. It was a most impressive ceremony; the slanting sun, the imposing military honours, the solemn words of the office—it is easily imagined; it will not be easily forgotten by those of us who witnessed it. Next morning we had left Boshof and its green streets behind, and were winding along the road, the line of patrols sweeping like a long billow over the hills before and on each side of us. We paused for a night at Zwaartzkopjesfontein, went on the next morning to Mahemsfontein; whence, having received orders from Lord Roberts to halt, we fell back on Zwaartzkopjesfontein.
On Monday morning, April 9th, I went out with the Yeomanry, who made a reconnaissance ten miles to the east. We found a party of about sixty Boers chasing goats and cattle and stock of all kinds on a Dutch farm occupied only by women. We could see them through glasses driving the stock away (about sixty head), but they only fired a shot or two at one of our scouts, and then fled, taking and keeping a four-mile start of us. This expedition was at least interesting, as again showing the really excellent work and methods of the Yeomanry. They cared for their horses in a more intelligent way than any regular cavalry I have seen, and they were not above taking hints from the Colonials in the matter of marching and patrolling order. Everyone was surprised. It had been quite the thing to smile at the very mention of the Yeomanry; yet they speedily proved themselves quite equal to take their place beside any other of the Volunteers, even the best of the Colonial mounted corps.
With a charming courtesy Lord Methuen designed and erected at his own expense a monument over the grave of his fallen enemy. On the stone is engraved this inscription:—
A LA MEMOIRE
DU COMTE DE VILLEBOIS DE MAREUIL
DE LA LEGION ÉTRANGÈRE
GÉNÉRAL DU TRANSVAAL
MORT AU CHAMP D'HONNEUR
PRÈS DE BOSHOF
LE 5 AVRIL, 1900
DANS SA 53ème ANNÉE