Buck Reef Farm, Monday, May 14th.
A diary is the last place in which to indulge in prophecy; it preserves too clearly the record of fallacy. In the last twenty-four hours have been reversed all the expectations of those in charge of this column, and even the direction of our march has been completely changed. My last entry was made at midday yesterday, and at 2.30 we resumed the march northwards, intending to reach a point ten miles distant at which there was water. The road was very heavy, or rather there was no road at all, the way lying over rough bush veldt, which consists of long, rank grass, with thorn bushes at small intervals and hardwood trees at greater distances—the whole something like an English paddock or park of young trees, except, of course, for the grass. This was heavy going; the mules were hot and tired, and the convoy trailed out and straggled; we spent quite two hours in covering the first four miles.
I have said that the convoy straggled, and there were long intervals between one part of it and the next. During one such interval, the afternoon being very hot, I lay down under a tree and left my horse to graze. A cloud of locusts flying high and beating the air with millions of wings made a pleasant sound as of wind in a forest, and listening to these and to the thousand other minute noises that proceed from the insect life on a few square yards of veldt, I almost fell asleep. There was not a sound from the column; you could not imagine a more peaceful spot; and the obvious contrast between the purpose of this little army and its present circumstances impressed me more vividly than ever. And in less than half an hour from that moment of absolute peace the bullets were hailing round us and the air was resonant with the boom of guns. This is how it happened.
It was half-past three when I left the shade of the tree and joined Colonel Mahon in front of the Horse Artillery, and at twenty minutes to four we heard the sound of rifle-shots—three or four—to the south-east. We had now got into a kind of wood in the bush, and here and there could see beyond the edge of it eastwards towards a hillside that sloped up from us to a ridge four miles away. On this ridge we could see a cloud of dust, and we were looking at it through glasses when a note came in from the right flank reporting a body of the enemy advancing on us from the east. Presently we made out on the edge of the dust a line of horsemen opening out on a kind of glade on the hillside, and the Brigadier ordered the guns to come into position where we were standing. It was really no sort of position at all, being merely a wood with no view from it, and in a hollow at that; but it was all that could be done.
The guns came galloping up, the horses as keen as mustard; in five minutes they had unlimbered and were in position; but Major Jackson, who was in command of the battery, reported that the range was extreme and that he could not be effective. So we lit pipes and waited, while the convoy was ordered to be hurried up as much as possible.
Up galloped an orderly with a note, and everyone tried to read the Brigadier's face. It clouded a little.
"Enemy advancing in strength on our front" was the essence of the note. But "They've got us in the nastiest place of the whole march" was all he said.
In a few minutes more Prince Alexander of Teck came up to report that the convoy was well up, and just as he had finished speaking rifle-fire broke out on our right, and a minute later, sharply, on our front. It was then 4.45, and a bewildering moment for the Brigadier, who had a great, bulky convoy to protect, and had it at the moment in a defenceless position. I think I would not take any reward to bear the responsibility of acting at such a moment. The shots were sounding quicker, but one could see nothing except the surrounding trees. Colonel Mahon looked coolly round.
"We must try with the guns," he said, and ordered another squadron out on the right.
The orderly rode away with the order, and at exactly five o'clock the fire broke out furiously and bullets began to whistle over us. Everyone put his horse into a canter by instinct, and I think the staff went round to the guns. I returned to the convoy to look after my cart.
The convoy was moving on now on as broad a front as the shrubs and trees would permit of; it raised a cloud of dust, which the level rays of the sun lit like a rainbow, and the bullets began to come in a hail. Well, that is rather exaggerated—not a hail. But on a summer day after oppressive heat and dark clouds the big raindrops begin to splash on the ground; and this fire, which many old stagers who have been through several fights describe as the hottest they have known, was something like that. There was no cover; everyone was under fire; so there was nothing to do but to dismount and lead one's horse along beside the convoy. Every now and then with the clear high "phit" of the Mauser bullet would come the hideous twisting whistle of the Martini—really a horrible sound. There was something like a panic amongst the native drivers; they walked along bent almost double, taking what shelter they could; one I saw crawling along on his belly, and the sight made me laugh, although I had at heart too much sympathy with him to be really amused. The mules and horses, alarmed by these strange whistlings in the air, began to neigh and scream, and they added to the general tumult. One gave up wondering whether or no one would be hit, but merely wondered if it would be a graze or a "plug." There were the usual number of miraculous escapes; the driver of the waggon beside which I was walking tumbled off his seat like a sack, stone dead; a mule in the waggon behind me leapt and kicked, and sank on the ground; my horse jumped as a Martini bullet smote the sand at his heel; yet I think there was never a bullet nearer me than a dozen feet. Major Baden-Powell, who is accompanying the expedition for his brother's relief, had his watch, worn in the left breast-pocket, smashed to atoms, but his skin was not even scratched.
They were ten very long and, to put it frankly, very hateful minutes that passed until M Battery opened with a roar. It was a welcome sound, and still more welcome the "pom—pom—pom—pom," like the bark of a good dog, that sounded immediately afterwards. And it was like oil on water, or water on fire. Immediately the enemy's fire slackened; in two minutes it had almost ceased; in five it had stopped entirely, and one began to get one's breath. There were men lying all round and about the wood, and the small ambulance staff had more work than they could do; my cart made three trips, carrying wounded men from the column to the dressing-station. Only ten minutes of fighting, and over thirty casualties; six killed, twenty-four wounded, one missing.
But when one had been through those ten minutes, it was not the men lying stark and still in the grass beside the ambulance that made one astonished; it was the sight of people walking about and talking that made one wonder whether or no one had been dreaming. It was decided to halt. Everyone lay down where he stood, and it was a strange, troubled night, with horses stumbling about in the moonlight and blowing with astonishment into one's face.
This morning, as some of us more than half expected, the enemy had cleared, but in consequence of a message received from Colonel Plumer asking us to meet and join him at a certain place we have turned from our original direction. We reached a dry river at eight o'clock this morning, and men had to begin to dig in the sand for water for themselves and their horses. One of my servants found a well fifty feet deep, from which the bucket hoist and ropes were missing. I had sixty feet of rope in my cart, and I went quietly away with two boys carrying all our buckets and bags and kegs, and leading all the horses. We had two hours of very hard work at that well; and when the horses had drunk their fill, and every vessel had been replenished, the fact that there was a well was reported to the Brigadier. In ten minutes a crowd of troopers was round the well, trampling down earth into the water; but if we had only had a few engineers everyone could have been supplied in half an hour.
Jan Massibi's, Tuesday, May 15th.
We marched off at half-past three yesterday, keeping west of north; on and on, until half-past eight in the evening. Everyone was dog-tired, and dropped to the ground, only to be roused at one o'clock this morning by the Brigadier, who personally went round and woke people up. He had to shake me twice, and I imagine that other people were wrapped in just as profound an oblivion; nevertheless we were on the march again at 1.30.
Oh, the weariness of that eternal plod through the rough grassy ground, the coldness, the interminable darkness! It was no better on horseback than on foot, for the animals kept falling asleep and stumbling. At every halt one tumbled off one's horse and fell asleep, only to be awakened by the hateful "Stand to your horses." But at last the light began to glimmer in the east, the air took an even colder tone, so that even the grasses seemed to shiver with the breath of dawn, and presently the whole horizon on our right burned with a red fire. Thereafter the shedding of greatcoats and sweaters and woollen helmets, and the glad breathing in of the wine of morning. A little after daylight our advance patrols came in touch with the pickets of Colonel Plumer's camp, down in the valley of the Molopo River at Jan Massibi's. The Brigadier and his staff rode on, and it was a pleasant meeting between the two officers. And pleasanter still when the cloud of dust that heralded our force appeared on the crest of the southern ridge and the long column began to pour down the slope and to cross the drift. Soon it was filling the valley and mingling with the other force already encamped, and now everyone is busy washing or eating near the picturesque little cluster of Kaffir kraals and big shady trees; for the region of karoo and shadeless plain has been left far behind. Our supplies are practically exhausted; the horses are eating their last ration to-day; but Mafeking is only eighteen miles distant, waiting for our help. There is something inspiring in that knowledge, and in the news of the grand little garrison's latest success; and everyone is anxious to push on and get the inevitable fight over.
To-day we rest under the trees and dream through the music of singing birds, with perhaps a thought for yesterday and the fellow-travellers whose journey ended so suddenly. But for the soldier, more than for anyone, the watchword is "No regrets"; and as for to-morrow, who can tell the issue?