To Lord Methuen was given command of the Kimberley Relief Column. He had with him the Guards, the Highland Brigade, and several of the finest infantry regiments in Her Majesty's army. A great task was allotted to him, but he was considered equal to any responsibility. He has been freely criticised for his conduct of this part of the campaign. It has been stated that he was prodigal of the lives of his men by direct assaults when he might have accomplished his purpose by sweeping flank movements, as Lord Roberts did afterwards. But then Lord Roberts had cavalry, and Methuen was sadly deficient in that arm of the service; and how to make such turning movements without sufficient cavalry, no one yet has been able to tell. However, it is not for us to enter into any criticism or defence of a British General.
What concerns us most for the purpose of this book, and what we rejoice to know, is that Lord Methuen was a humble and sincere Christian, who did all that lay in his power to further the spiritual work among his men. What this means to a chaplain or Scripture reader at the front can hardly be told. This we do know, that the direct assistance of the commanding officer often makes all the difference between rich success and comparative failure.
Christian Work at De Aar and Orange River.
The rallying-point for the Kimberley Relief Column was, in the first place, De Aar, the junction where the line to Kimberley connects with the line to Bloemfontein. In course of time, De Aar became the great distributing centre of stores for the forces on the way to Kimberley and Colesberg. Here the Army Service Corps held sway, and enormous were the stores committed to their care.
But at first, as we have said, De Aar was the rallying place for our troops, as they moved up from Capetown, and here it was that they got their first sight of the Boers. As they placed their pickets and sentries round the camp for the night, a Boer woman was heard to say, 'The rooineks are so afraid that their men will run away, that they have had to put armed men round the camp to keep the others in.' That was her way of interpreting the duties of British sentries!
Here it was that Christian work among the troops began in real earnest, and Sergeant Oates obtained permission from the leaders of the Railway Mission to use the Carnarvon Hall for Soldiers' Services. The colonel heard of it and put the service in orders, so that without any pre-arrangement on the part of the promoters, Sergeant Oates obtained the attendance of all the Wesleyan soldiers in De Aar at the time.
By-and-by they moved up to the Orange River, 570 miles beyond Capetown. Here they found that the station-master was a nominal Wesleyan, and he most kindly gave them the use of his house for religious services. Still, they were without chaplains, and what, perhaps, was, in their opinion, quite as bad, without hymn-books! Sergeant Oates found the name of the Rev. E. Nuttall, of Capetown, on a piece of dirty old paper in the camp. He did not know anything about him, or even whether he was still in Capetown, but he felt moved to write to him for those precious hymn-books. So he read his letter to the lads, and they 'put a prayer under the seal' and sent it off. The station-master at Belmont, who was going 'down,' promised to do what he could for these singing soldiers, who were without their books, and so even in worse state than preachers without their sermons; and, strange to say, letter, station-master, and Rev. E.P. Lowry appeared at the Rev. E. Nuttall's house almost at the same time! With Mr. Lowry came Mr. A. Pearce, Army Scripture Reader, from North Camp, Aldershot. He remained at Orange River while Mr. Lowry moved on with the Guards, to which Brigade he was attached.
By this time the troops were ready for the advance, and the chaplains were with their men. Rev. Mr. Faulkner was the senior Church of England chaplain. The Rev. James Robertson and the Rev. W.S. Jaffrey represented the Presbyterians, and the Rev. E.P. Lowry was the senior Wesleyan chaplain.
The Battle of Belmont.
And then came the battle of Belmont! From Orange River the troops had been compelled to march, and had their first taste of the African sun in the greatness of his strength. The legs of the kilted men were blistered as though boiling water had been poured over them, and all but the old campaigners in every regiment suffered acutely. Belmont was reached after dark; the troops were without over-coats or blankets, and the night was bitingly cold. But they lay down anywhere, glad enough to stretch themselves upon the ground or seek the friendly shelter of a ditch. Here they lay unmurmuringly--members of the proudest aristocracy in the world, noblemen of ancient lineage, quite ready to sleep in a ditch or die, for that matter, for their country.
Before two o'clock in the morning, they were aroused, and marched out to attack the stronghold of the Boers. And nobly they performed their task. But let a Christian soldier--our old friend Sergeant Oates--describe the battle.
A Sergeant's Account of the Battle.
'On the 23rd November (Martinmas Day), we marched out early in the morning, and at daybreak found ourselves facing the Boers in a formidable position. All was so still during our march to this place. While marching along, a young goat had got parted from its mother and commenced bleating mournfully in front of us, and although I am not superstitious, it made me feel quite uncomfortable, as it did many more. What became of it eventually I cannot say, but I think the poor little thing got roughly handled, if not killed.
'We were not long before we came within rifle range, and then the bullets began to fly about our ears as we advanced towards the Boer position. We pressed on; first one and then another kept dropping out, and shouts of "stretcher bearer" were heard very frequently. Nothing except death would have stopped our men that morning, so determined they seemed. On we went, and faster and thicker the bullets came, spending themselves in the sand at our feet. At last we reached the kopje, and rested at the foot a short while, and then up we went. Lieutenant Brine and myself reached the top in advance of the others. As soon as we popped our heads over the top, five of the Northamptons popped their heads over the other side, facing us with their rifles, at the present, and it was hard to convince them we were friends, so excited were they. We were not allowed to remain at peace long, for evidently some one had spied us. Ping, ping, came the Mauser bullets; swish, swish, the Martinis. We soon got to rather close quarters and were able to do some good shooting. I was still close to Mr. Brine, and we had been talking some few minutes, when some one spied him and he had two or three narrow escapes. He moved to what he thought was a safer place, and had about four shots, which all told. He gave me the range, and was just taking aim a fifth time when a Martini bullet pierced his throat, and he fell to rise no more. That was the first death I saw, and I felt somewhat sick. Soon, however, we charged, and up went the white flag; but it was the most difficult piece of work I ever saw, trying to stop our men in the middle of a charge. However, they were stopped in time, and instead of being killed, the remaining Boers were taken prisoners. The battle over, we returned to camp, and then came the sad duty of burying our fourteen dead comrades. There were not many dry eyes, but I venture to say there were many thankful hearts.'
Mr. Lowry's Adventure on the Veldt.
The Rev. E.P. Lowry had a very trying experience in connection with this battle. He had marched out with the colonel of the Grenadiers, intending to return to camp as soon as the railway line was reached; but it was impossible to find his way back in the darkness, and he therefore went on with the men. Presently the bullets were whistling all around him, and as soon as the heaviest fighting on the left was over, he busied himself among the wounded. Feeling however, that he could do nothing more, and that he had better be in camp to receive the wounded, he determined to make the best of his way back. But he was wrongly directed, and got lost on the veldt. Hour after hour he wandered about, but could find no trace of the camp, into which he had marched in the dark the previous night, and out of which he had marched in the dark that same morning. His thirst consumed him, he could walk no further, he was utterly exhausted. How many miles he had wandered he could not tell. The din of battle had died away, and all was one unbroken stillness. He sat down under the scanty shade of a thorn bush, and with a feeling of intense desolation upon him made the following entry in his pocket-book:--
'Am now without water, without bread, and almost without hope, save in Jesus Christ, my Saviour, in whom now, as ever, I trust for everlasting life.'
He knelt down and offered up what might well have been his last prayer, and then had a vivid impression made upon his mind that he should go in an entirely different direction from that in which he had been travelling. After wandering in utter weariness for some time in this direction, he saw in the dim distance a cart moving across the veldt. With all the strength he had left, he shouted. Presently the cart stopped, and he saw a man dismount. Slowly he came near, covering the poor, weary wanderer with his rifle. Who it was--Briton or Boer--Mr. Lowry did not know and hardly did he care. It was his one chance of life, and 'all that a man hath will he give for his life.' In his exhausted state, the heat and fury of the battle seemed as nothing to the intense loneliness and desolation of the veldt.
But a 'friend' drew near, for the man who so slowly came towards him was a Rimington Scout, and he and his comrade in the cart soon carried their chaplain to help and deliverance. They were in charge of some battle-field loot which they were taking temporarily to a Dutchman's house of which they had possession. Here there was a feather bed, and, what was better still, food and drink. That same night the scouts were ordered to Belmont, and back with them went the wandering chaplain, still weary and faint, to carry with him as long as he lived the memory of his awful experience upon the veldt.
They were burying the dead when Mr. Lowry returned to Belmont. The first to fall on that fearful day had been Corporal Honey. He had given his heart to God on the passage out, and great was the rejoicing of the comrades who had led him to Christ that he had been able to bear a good testimony until that fateful morning.
At the Battle of Modder River.
Then followed Graspan or Enslin, where the Naval Brigade suffered so seriously; and then the fight that Lord Methuen considered the most terrible in British history--the battle of the Modder River. For twelve hours the battle continued. They had had a long and wearying march and were looking forward to a good breakfast, but instead they had to go straight into the fight, and it was twelve hours before that breakfast came. Men who fought at Dargai and Omdurman tell us that these were mere child's play compared with the fight of the Modder River. Hour after hour the firing was maintained, until in many cases the ammunition was all expended. And yet there was no relief. The pitiless rain of bullets from the Boer fortifications continued, and it was impossible to carry ammunition to our lads through such a fire. Our men could in many cases neither advance nor retire, and men who had expended all their ammunition had just to lie still--some of them for six hours--while the bullets flew like hail just above them. To raise the head the merest trifle from the dust meant death. Many a godless lad prayed then, who had never prayed before, and many a forgotten vow was registered afresh in the hour of danger.
Let Sergeant Oates again give us his experience:--
'It was a terrible battle. I had two very narrow escapes there. A tiny splinter took a small piece of skin off the end of my chin, and another larger one just caught my boot and glided off. It almost went through. Again I got away unharmed. That day was a long prayer-meeting to me. Wherever I went and whatever I did, these words were on my lips:--
'"What a wonderful Saviour is Jesus, my Jesus. What a wonderful Saviour is Jesus, my Lord."
'Once and only once I grew weak, and almost wished myself wounded and out of it all, when this text came in my mind: "The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms." Oh! how ashamed I felt that I should be so weak and faithless!
'The third day was the fiercest, and to me it was a day of prayer. Ten long hours did the conflict last; the din was awful! The spiteful bizz of the Remington bullet, the swish of the Martini, and the shriek of the Mauser, coupled with the unearthly booming of the Hotchkiss quick-firer, and the boom, roar, and bursting of the shrapnel on both sides, all this intermingled with voices calling out orders, and shouting for stretchers, went on until the shades of evening fell over a day which, Lord Methuen says, has never had an equal. Yet above all this din, I was able to hear that voice which calms our fears saying: "When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee, and through the rivers they shall not overflow thee; when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon thee." With such promises as these, what would one not go through.
'That night, after the enemy had retired, I had to lead my company across a ford in the Modder River. It was very dark, and I was not sure of the way; I had crossed the river by the same ford early in the afternoon, but it was in the thick of the battle, so I was too busy with something else to take any notice of the road. I was cut off from my company, and got rather anxious about it. Looking with the aid of a match, at my text-book I found these words: "Commit thy way unto the Lord, trust also in Him, and He will bring it to pass." I was not slow to follow this blessed advice, and within half an hour I was with my company again, wet through and tired out. Yet, with these uncomfortable things about me, I was able to thank God for His loving care, and now I can write "tried and proved" against that text.'
And yet, though the fight was so terrible, the number of casualties was singularly few, considering the character of the encounter. Lord Methuen, however, was slightly wounded, and Colonel Stopford, of the Coldstream Guards, was shot dead.
One of the Boer batteries was planted close to the native Wesleyan Church, which was riddled with shot and shell from British guns intent upon dominating the Boer position.
That night, so far as possible, the chaplains gathered their men round them on the field, and many a homely evensong was held.
Then followed a period of quiet. There, frowning in front of them, was the Boers' natural fortress of Magersfontein, rendered impregnable by a wonderful series of trenches, at the extent and perfection of which they could only guess. They knew that there must be at least one desperate attempt to take them, if not more. But three great battles in one week had exhausted officers and men, and it was absolutely necessary to rest.
Fellowship and Work at the Modder.
This was the opportunity for the Christian workers. On the march or in the battle all that they could do was to speak a word of cheer as often as possible. Christian soldiers could not meet for fellowship; all that they could do was occasionally to have a hearty hand-grip or shout '494,' as a comrade passed by. With the shout of '494' they went into the battle, and when they came out their little Christian company was sorely depleted. But now they had time to look round, to count up their losses, to greet their comrades of other regiments again, to receive fresh accessions to their ranks.
The Soldiers' Home.
Mr. Percy Huskisson, of the South African General Mission, quickly secured the use of the native day school, which was also the worship room for the Wesleyan natives, and fitted it up as a Soldiers' Home. He and his colleague, Mr. Darroll, were indefatigable in their efforts on behalf of the men, and night by night the newly transformed Home was crowded. Lord Methuen himself opened it, and personally thanked the workers for their splendid services on the field of battle. In the course of his address, he said: 'I have heard of newspaper correspondents risking their lives when they are well paid for it, but you fellows seem to have no idea of danger; the shadow of the Almighty seems over you, or you would have been, ere this, in your graves, with many more of our brave men.' But under the shadow of the Almighty, the workers were secure, and are secure to-day!
Local Helpers in Good Work.
One of the best helpers the chaplains had was Mr. Westerman, who held an important position on the railway line, and who was steward of the Wesleyan Church at Modder River. He had been a prisoner among the Boers for six weeks, and on many occasions they had threatened to shoot him as a spy. They had not, however, injured him or his property in any way. It was, therefore, a most unfortunate occurrence that this good man's house and furniture should have been wantonly damaged by British soldiers on their arrival at the place. Evidently they thought the house belonged to a Boer. An order was, of course, promptly issued stopping such wanton destruction for the future.
Another good Christian man at Modder River was Mr. Fraser, a Scotch Presbyterian, whose house had been most unfortunately wrecked by the bombardment. He and Mr. Westerman met week by week, during the period of the Boer invasion, for Christian worship. These two gentlemen rendered splendid service to our Christian soldiers, and to them both we are greatly indebted. Every chaplain, every scripture reader, every agent of every society, every Christian soldier was now busily at work. The battles had made a great impression on the men. The war had only just begun, and they knew there were other terrible fights in store. The sight of the dead and dying was something to which they had not yet become accustomed. The stern reality of war was upon them, and, as Mr. Lowry wrote, 'There are no scoffers left in Lord Methuen's camp.' Take one instance out of many.
'After Many Days.'
Years ago, in Gibraltar, a sergeant came to a Christian soldier, and with words of scorn and blasphemy asserted his own independence of any power above him. Said he: 'My heart is my own. I am independent of everything and everybody, your God included.' The reply was a soldier's reply, straight and to the point: 'Jack, some day you will face death, and, who knows, I may see you, and if the stiffness does not leave your knees before then, my name is not what it is.'
Three years passed since then--three years of prayer on his account--and on the night of November 28, 1899, after the river had been passed, a hand was laid on that Christian's shoulder, and a voice said: 'Joe, I have done to-day what I have not done for thirteen years: I have offered up a prayer, and it has been answered. I have these last few hours seen all my life--seen it, as, I fancy, God sees it--and I have vowed, if He will forgive me, to change my ways.'
With Christian thoughtfulness his friend did not remind him of the incident at Gibraltar, but it was doubtless present to both minds just then. So does war melt the hardest hearts!
The letters from Christian soldiers at the front are full of stories of conversion. Again, we hear of private soldiers and non-commissioned officers at outposts conducting parades. After Magersfontein, the Christian influence deepened and the number of conversions increased. By-and-by, enteric began to claim its victims, and the Home had to be used as a fever hospital. Open-air work then became the order of the day. Some of the Christian soldiers met between six and seven in the evening, and marched to the camp of a regiment or battery, where they held what they call an 'out and out' open-air meeting. Sometimes they would get as many as a thousand listeners, and often the Word was so powerful that there and then men decided for Christ. The Saturday Testimony Meetings were gatherings of great power, as our soldier-lads told to the others, who crowded round, what a great Saviour they had found.
Prayer under Fire.
Now and then the monotony of ordinary duty was broken by an engagement. Such an interlude is pictured for us in vivid language in the following extract from the pen of one of our Christian soldiers:--
'On January 22, my battery advanced to a position directly in front of the hill occupied by the Boers, and almost within rifle range of their trenches. We had no cover whatever, and they dropped shell after shell into us for nearly two hours; and after dark we retired without a man or horse wounded. One of our gunners was hit with a splinter on the belt, which bruised him slightly, but did not wound him or stop the performance of his duty. One of their shells hit one of our ammunition wagons, and smashed part of it to matchwood. If God's mercy was not plainly shown in this, I say men are as blind as bats, and less civilized. During the whole of the two hours after I had taken the range, I had to sit, kneel, or stand with my face to the foe, and watch the Boer guns fire, then await the terrible hissing noise, next see the dust fly mountains high just in front of me, finally press my helmet down to prevent the segments hitting me too hard should any fall on me, but not one touched me, though they pattered like large hailstones on a corrugated iron roof. We amused ourselves by picking them up between bursts. I prayed earnestly all through that battle....
'I sit and muse over the chatter of my little children many a time, and almost reach out for them, as though they were here. They are near to my heart, and in the precious keeping of my Saviour.'
With those last pathetic sentences we may well close this chapter. The picture they call before us is one we are not likely to forget. The soldier grimed with the heat and dirt of battle; shells flying round him on every hand; Death stalking unchecked but a few yards away; and then the vision of little children, their chatter striking upon the father's ear in that far-off land, hands even stretched out to receive them. Absent-minded! nay, thou soldier-poet, thou hast not got the measure of Thomas Atkins yet. 'They are near to my heart, and in the precious keeping of my Saviour.' Thank God for that!
'Peace, perfect peace, with loved ones far away; In Jesus' keeping we are safe and they.'