The site of the Zwaartzkopjesfontein camp turns an abrupt face eastwards, but on the westward side the plateau slopes almost imperceptibly to the plain, which is, in its immediate neighbourhood, thickly sown with kopjes. Down this slope the cavalry were galloping, about two miles in advance of me, in squadron formation, towards a small kopje on which we had a picket. Realising that nothing could happen immediately, I followed them at a foot-pace, and came up with them at the foot of the hill where they had dismounted. Scouts were sent out westwards among the low bush with which these slopes are clothed, and from the top of the hill one could see them scattering and spreading over ten miles of country; but no sound broke the silence of the hills. Summer was back again to-day; our sea-plain was calm, shimmering in the haze; and only the buzz of an insect disturbed the peace of the little group on the brown hill.
While we were watching the scouts I heard what was in the wind. It seemed that an outpost of four yeomen, who were stationed about six miles north-west from camp, had so far forgotten the delicacy of their position as to light a fire and cook a turkey which they had found. They were surprised in the act by a small party of Boers, who fired upon them. Of the men thus surprised three were taken unhurt, while the fourth escaped slightly wounded, and, returning to camp, told the disturbing tale. Three squadrons had instantly been turned out to attempt a rescue, and it was on their heels that I had come out. We waited for an hour, and then the scouts came in one by one, all with the same tale. Nothing to be seen—no Boers; one thought that he had seen two on the sky line seven miles away, but they might have been Kaffirs rounding up cattle—he was not sure. So we had to give up the men for lost, and ride back to camp in a hurry and in rather bad temper, for it was mail day, and time was precious. But the little disaster proved to be a cheap enough lesson to the Yeomanry, and also to be the herald of operations far more important.
This happened on Thursday, April 19th. On Friday morning I was out at the same place at half-past six, because a staff officer had told me the night before that there was "a show on," and a "show" may mean anything from a patrol to a reconnaissance in force. Lord Chesham, who was in command, was sitting on the kopje with his staff, and I climbed up and joined them, the cavalry remaining as before underneath the hill while the scouts went out. We sat for an hour, comparing each other's glasses, until the stones became hotter and hotter and the sky line began to wave in the heat. At last I rode out to where there was an advanced picket, and sat searching the horizon with glasses. We were in a little grove of mimosa, and the doves were busy above our heads. After waiting for another hour we saw some Boers to the north, and presently the right flank scouts came in to report that there were about forty Boers working northwards on our flank.
That was quite enough. Everyone was back at the kopje in no time, and Lord Chesham sent out Lord Scarborough with one squadron, and Colonel Mahon with another.
I went with Lord Scarborough's. We rode out to the point at which the picket had been cut off, and saw more and more Boers coming from the north—about seventy—but they never got within range, although they worked closer and closer. Our little body of men was so well protected by flankers and scouts that, when the Boers at length began to steal along our flank with the evident intention of sniping us as we returned, we were able to retire before they came within range, having discovered the very useful fact that they were becoming more numerous and bolder in our neighbourhood.
As we passed through the camp we saw waggons and tents being packed. Advancing at last? Oh, dear, no. Only Lord Kitchener at the other end of the wire playing with us again. We were to retire on Boshof, but Lord Methuen decided, instead of going into the town, to encamp at Beck's Farm about five miles out, where the grazing was better. The lay mind found it hard to understand the purpose of these movements. Lord Methuen had been humbugged and baffled by Headquarters in what seemed at the time a most unbusinesslike way. First he was ordered out from Kimberley to Griquatown. When he was there and had 400 Boers in his grasp he received a message ordering him back to Kimberley at once. Then he was sent to Boshof and ordered to march with all speed on Hoopstad. Having reached Mahemsfontein he was ordered to halt, and that place being unsuitable for an encampment, had to fall back on Zwaartzkopjesfontein. And then he was ordered back to Boshof again. No doubt the explanation was that the advance of the main army under Lord Roberts had been delayed, but of course the Boers believed that all this was due to their own formidable movements, and were accordingly encouraged.
Well, there was no doubt that we were moving, and I hoped that we were going to march in the direction of Fourteen Streams and do something towards the relief of Mafeking. That was what we had all been longing to do, and it was with a long face that a staff officer said, "Back to Boshof."
So back we started.
Our column was nearly three miles long, and just as the tail of it was leaving camp and the head of it, like a snake's, beginning to curl round Spitz Kop—a lofty cone-shaped kopje beside the road—pom—pom—pom—pom! suddenly sounded from—where? The wicked little shells licked like a rising tide along our right flank.
Up on a ridge far on our right I saw the rogues working their gun, as busy as monkeys. Our friend the pom-pom once more, and most vivacious. At the same time I heard the banging of Mausers behind me, and the air above sang for an instant. And when that flight was over—Boom...! and the long screaming whirr—sounds which tell you that someone has touched off a field-gun, and that the shell is coming your way. This one was a common shell, and did not come within a hundred yards. The whole thing was very prettily done. Such a surprise, too. We had no idea that they had guns.
Turning my horse round I paused for an instant to watch the effect and the result. The column was still moving on, the Kaffir drivers shouting a little louder than usual perhaps, but not a bullock out of place or even a sheep touched. They were firing on a rather vulnerable part of the convoy, where a flock of about a thousand sheep were being driven and the remount horses led. But even while I looked the rear-guard was spreading out and joining hands with the right flank, and the sound of rifle fire from the ridge showed that they were already engaged. The pom-pom and the 12-pounder continued for about a quarter of an hour, and then our battery opened with a roar and silenced them in about two minutes. And all the while the convoy jolted along the road, and the rest of the action, or the chief part of it, remained with the right flank. But I could see the Boers galloping along the ridge in front of us to be ready for the convoy when it should come up, and certainly that ought not to have been possible. It is ungrateful to criticise the Yeomanry who had been doing so very well and learning so quickly, but, if the truth must be told, their work on the right flank that day was not beyond reproach. Once, when the fire was slack, I went across to the right, and rode back very quickly, for I found kopjes which, according to all military rules, should have been occupied by us, held by the enemy.
Of course to guard efficiently the flank of a marching column is not easy for untried troops, especially when a running fight has to be kept up. In this kind of country, where a line of kopjes runs parallel with the road, the best plan is for two flanking parties to occupy them by turn. Thus A party should occupy No. 1 kopje and B party No. 2; when No. 1 needs no longer to be held A leaves it and seizes No. 3, and then B leaves No. 2 and occupies No. 4, and so on. But the Yeomanry were strolling aimlessly along the foot of the kopjes, while the nimble Boer was climbing up the other side to the top, and shooting down upon them—or over their heads at the convoy—as he pleased.
It is a marvel that of our twenty casualties only two were killed. If the Boers had known of our movement just a little sooner I fear we should have suffered heavily, or at least lost many cattle and perhaps a few waggons. At the same time we were taken at the usual disadvantage of a moving force that has to defend itself, and, with the exception of the flanking, our work was done really well. The guns at once silenced the Boer artillery, and they were brought into action so expeditiously that the Boers never got the proper range. It is true that one shell plumped into the middle of a flock of sheep, but I believe it killed only two. And our rear-guard fought manfully. The fire was heavy there, and one could not see much, but I saw enough to realise that theirs was stiff work. They and darkness finished the engagement, and we went on to Boshof, arriving there just as night closed in.
I shall never forget riding down the main street in pitch darkness—the street full of waggons (each with its sixteen oxen), blundering about, the waggon in front of one suddenly stopping, and the waggon behind coming on—cries, curses, hailings, and railings of the drivers and soldiers—everyone trying to find his camp or his waggons or his horses, and not a light to be seen. And, in spite of it all, order emerged from the chaos; brigade signals flashing, camps pitched, pickets posted to keep watch over us all night, fires lighted, stations allotted; and presently "last post" and "lights out," and in spite of the bellowing oxen, rest