At daybreak on Wednesday, May 16th, the two columns under Colonel Mahon's command moved from Jan Massibi's in two parallel lines along the northern bank of the Molopo River. As the sky brightened before us Mafeking was eagerly looked for, but for a long time each successive rise only showed us another beyond which hid the desired view. The country consisted of a succession of ridges lying at right angles to our line of march, and as each one rose before us the staff galloped forward to the summit, only to see another lying beyond. But at last, while some of us were buying eggs at a Kaffir kraal, a more adventurous person climbed upon a rubbish heap and shouted "There's Mafeking!" There was a rush for the coign of vantage, and a great levelling of glasses. There it lay, sure enough, the little town that we had come so far to see—a tiny cluster of white near the eastward horizon, glistening amid the yellowish-brown of the flats. We looked at it for a few moments in silence, and then Colonel Mahon said, "Well, let's be getting on"; and no one said anything more about Mafeking, but everyone thought a great deal.
There was a difficulty about water, and it was finally decided to halt at midday at a point where the Molopo River curved near to the road. We turned off the road down a slope which sank towards the river on the right. The ground rose up on all sides round us, but the guns were placed near the top of the northward rise. The mules were outspanned and led to water, and we breakfasted. Remember that we had been up since half-past five and had had nothing to eat, that it was now nearly an hour after midday, and you will understand how it happened that I was more interested in the cooking of certain meats than in the galloping about of orderlies on the hillside.
Breakfast was just over and my horse was being saddled, when a crack of rifle-fire on our right front warned me that things were about to happen; and at the same time I saw that the mules were being harnessed with frantic haste. By the time that I had ridden up the slope the guns had gone forward into position, but as yet there was no firing except from rifles, which were banging in a desultory fashion now all along our right flank. I searched the slope beyond the river with my glasses, but could not see a man; yet the firing was there sure enough, and increasing. It was at 1.55 that the first firing broke out, and for half an hour the same thing continued, during which the convoy was formed up in what seemed a sheltered part of the hollow. We were in a bad place—a very shallow saucer; and on the edge of the saucer the Boers had taken up their position.
During this half-hour little seemed to be done, but there is always this interval during which a battle develops. We did not as yet know any but one place in which the Boers were; it was pretty certain that they did not know what we were going to do; so the right front, where our advance guard had first come into touch with the enemy, was as yet the only point of contact. Meanwhile Colonel Plumer, with the whole of his mounted men, was sent off to the right flank; Colonel Peakman, with the Kimberley Mounted Corps, was held back to watch the rear; Colonel Edwards was sent with the Imperial Light Horse to the left flank, with instructions to work round in advance if possible, and so turn the enemy's right; and the Royal Horse Artillery and the Canadian guns took up a position on the front. It was difficult to find a place from which to look on, especially as we were far from confident that the Boers were on our right alone. There were folds in the sides of our saucer, and I found a kind of ridge on the northward slope below our guns. I had just dismounted and was watching the right ridge through my glasses when the edge of the horizon at which I was looking was divided by a bright flash. In a few seconds there was a deep report, followed by the whine of a shell in the air; the sand spouted up in a great fountain—Heavens! how close to the convoy; and presently the sound of the burst drowned the crackling of musketry. The convoy huddled away from the smoking patch where the shell had fallen, and began—oh, how slowly!—to wind up the slope towards me. Another shell, still on the same spot, of which the waggons were now quite clear; and now the shells followed each other so rapidly that one gave up trying to distinguish between the initial and the bursting reports, and became absorbed in watching the brown columns spouting from the earth.
They were now playing all round the moving convoy, and each was a miracle; wherever there was a blank space, there the fountain rose; and when the convoy had closed up so completely that one was certain that the next shell must hit something, it fell quite wide. I was still watching this beautiful and dreadful sight when the air above me vibrated to a new song, and on my right a small shell burst with a disagreeable sound. I cleared away to the northern side of the basin, only to feel once more obliged to move as a new gun opened and began to churn up the ground. To be sure, these were long, range-finding shots, and were not intended to pitch where they did, but it is not always safe to rely upon the accuracy of shrapnel fire, and I moved again. But it was of no use; the enemy's pom-pom suddenly began to bark, and played on the one spot which had seemed but a moment before to be safe.
During this development (which had only occupied about ten minutes) our artillery had gradually come into action; first the solitary, abrupt bang of the 12-pound horse gun, then the readier and brisker fusilade of the Canadian quick-firing Vickers-Maxim, then the clamour of our two pom-poms, then the rattle of a Maxim somewhere in the rear. And all the while the area from which the sounds proceeded was spreading like a bush-fire; beginning on the right, it worked across our front, spread from the left front along that flank until it seemed almost to meet the firing on the right rear. When all the guns were going the medley was terrific, although I suppose it was nothing to the sound produced in a really big pitched battle. But it was confusing enough, and, what with the baffling effect of the cross-fire, the whining in the air, and the continuous noise of the explosions, the rattle and crackle of musketry, the galloping hither and thither of orderlies and messengers, and the unpleasantness resulting from the whole thing's happening in so small an area, provided excitement enough to satisfy the most jaded adventurer.
In colder language what had happened was this. The commando that had been holding on for days on our right as we marched had got ahead of us when we diverted towards Plumer, had effected a junction with a force sent out from Mafeking to oppose us, and had just arrived in position near Israel's Farm when we came up against them. Fortunately they had not time to entrench, but they were just going to begin when we turned them, as we found picks and spades lying about in rear of their northward artillery position. From the large outline of their attack there must have been at least 2,000 of them, and from the cleverness with which they were disposed we at first estimated them at twice that number. We held them on our right while we sent a strong force working round on our left, which ultimately got out far enough to turn their right. Of course we were too few to do more than dislodge them; surrounding was out of the question; so when we had fairly turned them we "let go" on the right, and the Boers fled in that direction. The house at Israel's Farm they held until the very end, shelling our rear-guard briskly. The engagement lasted close on five hours, during which our casualties amounted to less than forty.
In even fewer words than these (so concise is his art) the military despatch-writer might have described those eventful hours; and one takes a kind of pleasure in trying to imitate him, so supremely inadequate are such sentences to produce any real impression on people who have never found themselves in the midst of a battle. Not that any art of written words is equal to it. One goes through the whole gamut of sensation; one is charmed, afraid, bewildered; charmed by the scale and magnitude of the operations, afraid for one's own skin, bewildered with a kind of dream at the strangeness of it all. One may sit, as I sat, under a tree listening and watching for hours; and from the grossly and crudely real the thing fades and changes into an unreal image of the senses. The gaudy flies and beetles that hum round one, whose noise is so much louder and nearer than the crash of shells, they fill the foreground of reality; it is not conceivable that the man with the pleasant face and kindly eye who is directing a battery should be attempting the lives of his fellows on so large a scale. Yet it is the scale that makes the difference: a man who would abhor to kill another will with a smile direct the machine that destroys twenty; and he, if anyone, has the right to act upon this reduced estimate of the value of human life, for he counts his own as lightly as that of his enemy.
But I have forsaken my narrative of the fight, and I am confronted by the fact that there are five hours of fighting to be accounted for.
Five hours! Was it for so long that one listened to the voices of guns and rifles? I can hardly believe it, and no bare catalogue of man[oe]uvres seems to fill the gap. Our artillery positions were changed several times, and when the convoy was crowded up into a fold of the ground the shells no longer reached it, but continued to pound at Colonel Peakman and his rear-guard. At about five o'clock, the Boers having cleared from our left front, the convoy was pushed on in that direction, and we penetrated as far as the position which had been held by the Boer 15-pounder on our front. Just as we reached that point a note was brought in from Colonel Plumer on the right reporting that he was checked by the Boers at Israel's Farm, and accordingly the Horse Artillery battery was formed up in front of the convoy, and with the two pom-poms (which followed it about like small dogs barking after a big one) shelled the farm, which the enemy evacuated. The sun began to sink, the firing in our rear dropped and died out gradually, and with a few shots from a Martini, fired by someone on the left who amused himself by sniping the staff, the fight came to an end.
The fight was over, but as the convoy began to work its way cautiously through the bush in the dusk we began to talk about it, and to fit it together from the pieces of our individual experience. What had they been trying to do? What had So-and-so been doing on the left? Had we many casualties? Should we go on into Mafeking? Ah, that was the question. But after about an hour's trekking through the bush it was decided to halt, as someone reported that the enemy was entrenched ahead of us. As for the fight, we did not then fully know what had happened, but we found out afterwards. The Boers had once more given us a lesson in tactics, and we had given them one in dealing with a nasty situation. With a comparatively small force (although stronger than ours) they had bluffed us by extending their attack round a large perimeter, leading us to suppose their strength to be far greater than it really was. They had caught us in the one bad bit of country between Jan Massibi's and Mafeking, and but for the really excellent fighting on our side might have held us where we were until the want of supplies forced us to retire or surrender. As we had so few casualties it is probable that they had not many; but it is possible to have very warm fighting with few casualties. Our cover was excellent; so was theirs; and Colonel Peakman, who, with the rear-guard, bore the heaviest burden of the fight, lost hardly a man, although he lost heavily in horses. Everyone is agreed that the honours of the day fell chiefly to this gallant business man, who in his spare time had made himself so good a soldier.
All these matters were talked over until we halted about seven o'clock and reluctantly heard that we were not to proceed that night. No lights, of course; but everyone was ready to lie down. While my bed was being prepared I went over to the ambulance, whither the wounded were being brought in on stretchers. There were only two small waggons, and the wretched sufferers were literally heaped inside them, lying in the dark amid their own blood. The little staff under Surgeon-Captain Davies worked gallantly, getting the men out, dressing their wounds, making them as comfortable as possible on blankets over the grass; but it was a miserable and sordid scene, relieved only by the cheery willingness of the helpers and the fortitude of the patients. Even here, of course, there were no lights, but in the recesses of a waggon an orderly was trying to prepare hot water with a tiny Etna. Dressing about twenty serious surgical cases out of doors in pitch darkness, with a limited supply of not over clean water, short-handed, hurried, without proper appliances—it was a sight that would have startled the artist in antiseptic surgery. But there they lay; and it was with something like a sense of shame that I turned into my own comfortable bed.