THE first notable exchange of compliments was when the Boer rifles seized Laing's Nek and crossed the Drakensberg range, moving on to Elandslaagte, and on the way they seized a train laden with supplies.
Generals Joubert and Meyer designed to fall on Symon's camp, on the 20th, the former with 17,000 and the latter, 7,000. On the day before, Meyer took Talana Hill, a precipitous height overlooking our Dundee camp.
Friday, the 20th, opened at Glencoe with a bright sky, the sunlight revealing a scenery of rugged grandeur, typical of that part of the country. Picture the rocky hill, scattered with big boulders called kopjes, accessible with difficulty, and on which native ponies had much the advantage of our cavalry horses. And unfortunately the English were on the wrong side of this, as of other hills they had to climb, which sloped gently from the north side and presented a steep activity on the other.
The British camp sloped down to a dry river bed or donga, and on the other side of it the ground rose to a narrow belt of wood at the foot of the hill. The stones on the top covered the Boer Snipers, and their shots were dodged as well as they could be by our men in Khaki (Persian for dust)—a uniform first used in India, of which much has been heard during the struggle, and well adapted for a hot climate.
Our 4,000 men who advanced to the attack included an Infantry Brigade of four battalions, a squadron of Mounted Infantry, some Cavalry, and a few mounted Natal troops. The Infantry was composed of the Leicester Regiment, King's Royal Rifles, Irish Fusiliers, and Royal Fusiliers.
The horsemen were the 18th Hussars, under Colonel Moller; and in addition to the irregulars from the Colony there were three field batteries of artillery, 13th, 67th, and 69th. These cannonaded the hill at a range of 2,000 yards, and after a two hours' noisy duel the opposing Mauser guns, using smokeless melimite, were silenced by our shrapnels. The Hussars were making a detour to cut off the enemy's retreat, and the Leicesters were kept in reserve.
Then came the opportunity for 2,000 Infantry to scale the rugged parapet against double their number of marksmen, shooting in ambush. These were bearded farmers and their sons, in ordinary dress, from beyond the Buffalo river, and with them were a few anti-English, Irish, French, Russians, Germans, and others— well-paid free lances. Each Dutchman carried a rifle, but neither sword nor bayonet, and for this reason they did not appreciate, close quarters,
They were " foemen worthy of our steel," only they always took to their heels when our bayonets came into play. Each Boer had a bandolier of cartridges swung over his shoulder, or round his waist, and had left their shaggy mounts tethered below. On the crest of the elevation were six field pieces, in entrenchments.
The day before these Vryheid farmers, led by Commandant Lucas Meyer (president of the first Transvaal Volksraad or Parliament) were nowhere to be seen by our scouts within fifteen miles, so fleet are the movements of these huntsmen. At 2-30 a.m. our picket became aware of the enemy. At dead of night the intrepid civilians had dragged their long-range artillery up some 2,000 yards to the summit of the mount.
Three English battalions advanced to the wood, with our guns firing over them, in the face of a shower of bullets, which felled some of the assailants.
General Symons, whose whereabouts was unfortunately marked by a lancer with a red flag, while leading bravely, was mortally shot in the groin, though he continued on his horse until weakness compelled him to withdraw: he died a few days after.
The frontal assault went on. From Peter Smith's farm in a wood, over the boulders, climbed the Khakies to a terrace with a stone wall; thence it was like scaling a perpendicular rock. Spread out for skirmishing in half companies, led by the Dublins. From boulder to boulder they scrambled till by 10-5 (or five hours after our batteries opened) a second stone wall was reached for a two hours' rest. They were now within 600 yards of the crowning plateau and if any unwary ' rooinek' (as they called our men) showed his head above the wall he received a leaden missive.
The Fusiliers, on the left, mounted by a gully, into which they dropped, but as they emerged from cover not a few of them fell. So the ascent was made till at noon, when there was a lull at the top, the "advance" was sounded, and the wall was mounted at a bound; then a bolt across the bit of green veldt, to the precipitous cliff, which was attempted under a deadly fire.
Colonel Gunning, at the head of the King's Royal Rifles, was shot through the brain. With a yell and rush still went on the Rifles, followed by the Dublins and other comrades, till victory crowned the three dauntless battalions; they bayonetted any Boers found in the trenches who would not surrender, while the rest of the foe fled like mad on their fleet nondescript steeds. They deserted 100 dead and wounded brethren, and to save their retreat hoisted the white flag, which closed the mouths of our guns. But what was their gratitude? They captured a squadron of Cavalry and most of the mounted Infantry despatched to intercept their retreat.
It was a costly triumph. Five officers were killed and seven wounded, out of seventeen, in the King's Royal Rifles. The two other battalions lost two officers killed and eight wounded. Of non-commissioned officers and men the Rifles lost 11 killed and 75 wounded; the Dublins 4 killed and 44 wounded, and the Royal Irish Fusiliers 14 killed and 31 wounded.
170 British prisoners were escorted to Pretoria. Sergeant Baldrey, with 30 troopers, being separated from the rest, dodged the enemy and by a detour of several days reached camp in safety.