In spite of their former experiences the troops under Lord Methuen were in some danger of forgetting the sterner realities of warfare, and of mistaking for them the mere physical discomforts incidental to life afield in rough weather. The camp at Zwaartzkopjesfontein—the highest point of land within a large area—was scattered amongst rocks and boulders piled high into an island ridge rising from the plain; and amongst the rocks and ferns one found here and there a piece of lawn (long untrodden by any feet but those of goats) large enough to picket one's horses and pitch one's tent upon. Eastward the plain stretched to the horizon, as level as the sea; indeed, in a landscape so monotonous that one was fain to decorate it with fancies, it stood for the sea, and touched the rocky base of our island as the sea washes many a mile of bluff coast. Winter was setting in, and all day long wreaths of mist and banks of rain came blowing from the eastward (the seaward, as we called it), and shrouded the brown rock. The signallers on the height used to wrap themselves in their oilskins as darkness fell and lamps took the place of flags and spy-glasses; in the dark gusty hours we heard the "all's well" of a sentry as the visiting patrol went by, much as one hears the cry of the watch on board ship; and down below, the mimosa-trees sighed like surges against the foot of the rock.
The ten days spent there by the troops were marked by only two expeditions against the invisible enemy, neither of which achieved anything but a nominal result. One was under Colonel Mahon, and repaired the telegraph line in the neighbourhood of Modder River; it was intended to patrol as far as Klip Drift, but the rain made the veldt impassable for waggons. Certainly the line was repaired, but, as the Colonel contemptuously remarked, "What's the use of sending an expedition to repair telegraph lines? An old woman can cut 'em again ten minutes after you've gone."
The other flying column was under General Douglas, and was sent out eastward in search of a commando known to be in the neighbourhood. As both columns started on the same day (April 11th) I could not be with both, so I chose General Douglas's as offering the better chances of an engagement. Two days before Lord Chesham had conducted a reconnaissance with his cavalry, to which I had been invited, and at which he had promised me "fine sport." Result: a fine cross-country gallop, a deal of used-up horseflesh, a number of tired and (because they had been hurried out without their breakfasts) rather cross men, and a sight of a few Boers riding off at a distance of five miles. "Butterflies" was someone's description of these elusive enemies of ours; and when one considers what a fine chase they gave us, and how hot and cross we became in the course of it, the description seems not inapt.
General Douglas's column, consisting of a battalion of the Northamptons, 300 Imperial Yeomanry, 50 men of the Kimberley Mounted Corps, a section of Field Artillery, Ambulance and Supply Corps, set out before dawn on Wednesday, April 11th. We marched, as it had hitherto been my lot always to march in this campaign, eastwards towards the fires of dawn, leaving the dark night-sky behind us. The waggons creaked and jolted across the rough veldt, the gun harness jingled, the horses snorted out the cold air, the Kaffirs cried to their beasts; and in this discordant chorus we stretched out across the sea-plain while the east kindled and glowed. Above us the clouds changed from grey to dove-colour, from that to rose-pink; and then, straight before us, the sun came up and gave us gold for redness. The little purple wild flowers opened, showing us where the night had left a jewel on every petal, and the sleepy soldiers plucked them as they passed and cheered themselves with their faint fragrance. The day, like the night, comes quickly there, and brings with it an even greater change. For in that last week of autumn we tasted of every season; hot summer days, nights of spring, dark, cold winter mornings by the camp fire; and it was when night changed to day that winter faded into summer. For that reason, I suppose, the hour after sunrise was the most invigorating of all, and long before the sun had dried the dew from their clothes the men were marching with a freer step.
This will show you how suddenly things may come upon the unwary in that country. I had been riding with the scouts, two miles in advance of the column, and we had just been examining through glasses a moving group in the distance. It turned out to be nothing but cattle feeding—the only moving things in a plain that seemed absolutely level, and I rode back and rejoined the column. The Brigadier was just saying that he was afraid we should see nothing to-day, when an orderly galloped up with a note from Lord Chesham (who was out with the scouts on our left flank) to say that the Boers were holding a kopje three miles on our left front in strength.
Then began the excitement. Everyone was wide awake in a moment and curious to see how the new Brigadier would manage his first job. The convoy was halted, and the troops drawn on under cover of a slight and almost imperceptible rise in the ground. Riding on in advance I suddenly came on the scouts in action, that is to say, their horses were picketed in rear of them, and they were lying hidden in the long grasses. And there you have a typical picture of this kind of warfare. A row of men lying on the ground, for no apparent reason, chewing the long stalks and talking quietly to each other; in front a flat and seemingly vacant ground; profound silence reigning everywhere. But use your glasses, and you will see what looks like a shadow, but is really a rise on the ground, giving advantage enough for the extermination of an army; show your head, and you will hear the bang and whirr of the Mauser.
Presently the jingle of harness sounded behind me, and the guns went by to take up a position on the left. I followed behind them in shelter of the ridge, and therefore out of sight of the position. When I saw it again I found that we were facing three long low mounds, running north and south across our path, and the attack was now being developed. The infantry, so dense a mass when marching, were now strung out in long lines sweeping towards the left, and Lord Chesham with two squadrons had also gone far to the left, to try to get round the position. Meanwhile the guns were unlimbered, and their anxious crew (the battery had never been in action before) were on tenter-hooks.
Up rides a staff officer. "Shell that ridge on the left."
"Right, sir. Sight for 1,800. Fuse six—no, six and a half," says the nervous subaltern.
"Fire, number one gun! Fire, number two gun!" Then two shattering explosions, the suspense of six seconds, the burst of shrapnel in the air, the cloud of brown dust rising where it struck, and the hollow "boom" coming back when all was over.
These exercises were repeated with much zeal by the subaltern and his crew, until after about fifty rounds had been fired the order came to cease fire; and it was afterwards ascertained that, as the net result of this commotion, one partridge had been shot. But I know of another result. A certain subaltern member of the Royal Regiment of Artillery sat thereafter a little straighter on his horse than he had sat a week ago.
But while the noise was going on, for all we knew, the Boers might be suffering heavily from the shrapnel; although we rather thought not, since no one was shooting back at the guns. Meanwhile the infantry was threading out to the left, from which direction a shot now and then sounded; and the remark of the onlookers (the onlooker is invariably a critic) was, "Why is he committing all his force to a left-flank turning movement, leaving only a hundred and fifty men to watch his centre and right, when there may be only a dozen men on that left kopje?"
So said we, who sat on the gun limbers looking very wise; and, by one of those unfortunate chances which sometimes justify the amateur critic and encourage him in his vice, we turned out to be right. What was really happening was this. The 150 or 400 Boers (I never discovered which, although I believe it was the smaller number) who sat on that hill and saw us coming did not wish to stay. So they held the middle kopje, and threw out what is called a "false flank" on to the left kopje; and then, seeing our whole force committed to the left, they went behind the hill and filled their pipes, and packed their saddlebags and rode off, leaving the six men to keep us busy while they went. And then the six men departed also; and after much careful scouting, we rode victoriously over the kopje. If we had attacked on the right flank also, we should probably have caught them, as Lord Chesham would in a little longer have got round to their rear and cut them off. Of course, the whole difficulty in such cases arises from the invisible fire of smokeless powder. One never knows whether the banging is produced by six men firing briskly or by sixty firing slowly, and that was why Lord Chesham had to tire out his horses by taking them round twelve miles to avoid six men.
Our only "casualty" was carried out of action in a stretcher—he was a member of the volunteer company of the Northamptons.
"They've got me, sir," he said to me, in tones of mingled pride and martyrdom, "'it in the leg."
As a matter of fact, the man was only scratched; he could easily walk, but could not resist the circumstance of the stretcher; and he fell into his place for the rest of the march, a very proud man.
We bivouacked at Granaatz Plaatz farm that night, whence the heliograph winked the news of our engagement to our camp. It was a day of alternate sunshine and cloud, and the messages gave the signallers much trouble. I had one to send after the official messages, and the sun was getting low by the time it began. The shine never lasted for more than twenty seconds, but they managed to edge the words into the blinks until they came to "Zwaartzkopjesfontein." The sun always gave out in the middle of it; the regulations demanded that the word should be begun afresh every time, and finally the sun sank victoriously on the fell word. Darkness set in, and a blinding thunderstorm with deluges of rain, but the signallers were not to be beaten.
"We'll do ut on the lamp, sorr, and divil take the ould sun for goin' out on us," said the Irish sergeant.
I should not like to say how many people had to do with that message before it got near the cable. In the first place, the light could hardly penetrate the twelve-mile space of rain; and even when they had succeeded in "calling up" headquarters the lightning flashes interfered with our feeble dots and dashes. I shall always remember that little group of men working most admirably on the kopje high up amid the storm and rain—one lying on his face in the mud with a telescope propped on a stone reading the reply; another keeping the paper dry under his helmet while he spelt the message to the operator; and a third working the shutter that, by occulting the light, makes flashes from the lamp.
"Guardian—G-u-a-r-d-i-a-n," says the reader.
"Bang, bang; rattle; bang, rattle, rattle; bang; bang, bang, rattle; bang, rattle; bang, rattle, rattle; bang, bang, bang," goes the lamp.
An anxious pause is enlivened by a clap of thunder.
"Answered," says Spy-glass. And often a word had to be repeated three or four times before it was answered, but at the fourth letter of "Zwaartzkopjesfontein" the answering signal was plainly given, followed by DDDD, which, although not in the code-book, is an expression well understood by all signallers.
All that night it rained, and the men in their wretched bivouacs sang through it all with a most admirable heroism. Imagine yourself with two other people lying in three inches of water with two blankets supported by rifles over your head, and you have their condition. And they started again in the cold, rainy darkness, wet and chilled to the bone, still singing. But that is the private soldier all over. Put him in really happy circumstances, and he grumbles himself hoarse; give him something really to grumble at, and he is cheerful; give him misery, and he sings. We marched fifteen miles on Thursday, the 12th, and encamped at Buitendam, the farm of a field-cornet, where a few of the enemy sniped at us as we arrived and had the satisfaction of seeing the whole force turned out after a weary march. But of course the Boers are in their element at this kind of game. A hundred of them wish to drive away some stock; they leave a dozen to snipe from a ridge, while we send Tommy plodding round for miles on a flanking movement (for you must keep him out of range); and when the cattle have been driven far enough away, Mr. Boer jumps on his horse and is off also, while we ruefully "occupy" the vacant hill.
We found a noisy and rather gratifying revenge in destroying some ammunition which was buried in the garden; the throwing of three thousand rounds of cordite ammunition into the fire is a peculiarly exciting game. Some presiding genius, instead of blowing up the two cases of dynamite, threw them into the dam, whence, I have been told, they were fished up, not a penny the worse, by the Boers after our departure next day.
A thing happened in connection with this Boer ammunition which shows once more how very easy it is to attribute all kinds of sins to one's enemy. Someone came running up to a little group of us with several packets of cartridges, one with the seal broken.
"Here's a pretty thing," he said; "poisoned bullets—the brutes!"
Sure enough, there were the steel bullets projecting out of the cartridges, each completely coated with something very like verdigris up to the edge of the brass envelope. The sealed packets showed that they must have been so received from the makers, which easily proved the most premeditated barbarity. Exclamations were rife; a brigadier was making notes in his pocket-book; someone was urging a correspondent to send home a cable announcing the fact, when a man, who had been sitting quietly through it all, said—
"That's all very well, but how about the rifling in the barrel? I guess there wouldn't be much of that stuff left on by the time the bullet was spinning."
Silence fell like a cloud on the group, and the bubble was finally pricked when another officer came up and said—
"More bad grease! I've had to chuck out half a box of ammunition because the grease has gone bad and fouls the rifles."
Of course; it was as simple as day. The bullets had, as usual, been dipped in grease to preserve them, and the grease had gone bad. When I returned to the little circle there was an animated conversation in progress on the subject of visiting patrols.
We marched in next day, eighteen miles, having covered a pear-shaped track eastwards of about forty miles, while the men behaved like Trojans under most uncomfortable circumstances.
We remained for some days in camp, waiting for Lord Roberts to move, and fighting no more dangerous enemy than the wet and boisterous weather of young winter. Certainly Lord Methuen had a fine force there, well tried and in excellent condition, and we all hoped that he might be given a chance to do something with it. There is something at once lonely and lofty in the position of a General Officer in the field that wins one's sympathy. You see it most plainly at a full church parade such as was held on Easter Sunday, when the whole force was formed into a hollow square. Walls of living faces; before them, a few paces, company officers; before them again, commanding officers; the chaplain in the middle; and then the pleasant-looking Guardsman striding into his place in front of all and saluting the chaplain—the only person to whom that honour is rendered. After the short service the General's position is still more sharply indicated, when the shouting of orders takes the place of the parson's placid tones.
"Northamptons! 'shon! Fours left, by the left—quick—march!" and the tramp of feet nears the spot where the General stands alone. Down the whole battalion you hear the order run, "Company! eyes left!" and hundreds of eyes are turned on the General, until the (to him) welcome "Eyes front!" relieves him from so particular a scrutiny. Is it not a paragon of what he has to endure from the world?