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Phillipps: Letter 2 - Belmont

Belmont Siding.

It is to be called Belmont, I believe, from the little siding on the railway near which it was fought. On the other hand it may be called after the farm which it was fought on. Who decides these things? I have never had dealings with a battle in its callow and unbaptized days before, and it had never occurred to me that they did not come into the world ready christened. Will Methuen decide the point, or the war correspondents, or will they hold a cabinet council about it? Anyhow Belmont will do for the present.

What happened was the simplest thing in the world. The Boers took up their position in some kopjes in our line of march. The British infantry, without bothering to wait till the hills had been shelled, walked up and kicked the Boers out. There was no attempt at any plan or scheme of action at all; no beastly strategy, or tactics, or outlandish tricks of any sort; nothing but an honest, straightforward British march up to a row of waiting rifles. Our loss was about 250 killed and wounded. The Boer loss, though the extent of it is unknown, was probably comparatively slight, as they got away before our infantry came fairly into touch with them. The action is described as a victory, and so, in a sense, it is; but it is not the sort of victory we should like to have every day of the week. We carried the position, but they hit us hardest. On the whole, probably both sides are fairly satisfied, which must be rare in battles and is very gratifying.

Our mounted men, Guides, 9th Lancers, and a few Mounted Infantry, marched out an hour before dawn. A line of kopjes stood up before us, rising out of the bare plain like islands out of the sea, and as we rounded the point and opened up the inner semicircle of hills, we could distinguish the white waggon tops of the Boer laager in a deep niche in the hillside, and see the men collecting and mounting and galloping about. By-and-by, as we advanced, there came a singing noise, and suddenly a great pillar of red dust shot up out of the ground a little to our left. "That's a most extraordinary thing," thinks I, deeply interested, "what land whale of these plains blows sand up in that fashion?" Then I saw several heads turned in that direction, and heard some one say something about a shell, and finally I succeeded in grasping, not without a thrill, the meaning of the phenomenon.

The infantry attack came off on the opposite side of the ridge from where we were, and we could see nothing of it. But we heard. As we drew alongside of the hills, suddenly there broke out a low, quickly uttered sound; dull reports so rapid as to make a rippling noise. The day was beautifully fine, still, and hot. There was no smoke or movement of any kind along the rocky hill crest, and yet the whole place was throbbing with Mausers. This was the first time that any of us had listened to modern rifle fire. It was delivered at our infantry, who on that side were closing with their enemy.

The fire did not last long, though in the short time it did terrible damage, and men of the Northumberlands and Grenadiers and Coldstreams were dropping fast as they clambered up the rocky hillside. But that brief burst of firing was the battle of Belmont. In that little space of time the position had been lost and won, and we had paid our price for it. During the march across the flat, as I have been told since, our loss was comparatively light; but when the climbing of the hill began, numbers of Boers who had been waiting ready poured in their fire. All along the ridge, from behind every rock and stone, the smokeless Mausers cracked (it was then the fire rose to that rippling noise we were listening to on the other side of the range), and the sleet of bullets, slanting down the hill, swept our fellows down by scores. But there was never any faltering. They had been told to take the hill. Two hundred and fifty stopped on the way through no fault of theirs. The rest went on and took it. That's the way our British infantry put a job through.

Soon, on our side, scattered bands of the enemy began to emerge from the kopjes and gallop north, whilst right up at the top of the valley their long convoy of waggons came into view, trekking away as hard as they could go, partly obscured by clouds of dust. We made some attempts to stop them, but our numbers were too few. Though defeated, they were not in any way demoralised, and the cool way in which they turned to meet us showed that they knew they were safe from the infantry, and did not fear our very weak cavalry. We did not venture to press the matter beyond long shots. Had we done so, it was evident we should have been cut up.

Various little incidents occurred. This one amused me at the moment. We had captured a herd of cattle from some niggers who had been sent by the Boers to drive them in, and I was conveying them to the rear. From a group of staff officers a boy came across the veldt to me, and presently I heard, as I was "shooing" on my bullocks, a very dejected voice exclaim, "How confoundedly disappointing." I looked round and saw a lad gazing ruefully at me, with a new revolver tied to a bright yellow lanyard ready in his hand. "I thought you were a Boer," he said, "and I was going to shoot you. I've got leave to shoot you," he added, as though he were in two minds about doing the job anyway. I looked at him for a long while in silence, there seemed nothing to say, and then, still ruefully, he rode away. This, you will understand, was right up our end of the valley, and I was driving cattle on to our ground, only I had a soft hat on.

We have plenty of youngsters like this; brave, no doubt, but thoughtless and quite careless about the dangerous qualities of the men they have to meet. "They'll live and learn," people say. They'll learn if they live, would perhaps be nearer the mark. The Boers, on the other hand, such as I have seen yet, are decidedly awkward-looking customers, crafty, but in deadly earnest, versed in veldt wars and knowing the country to an anthill. Looking from one to the other, I fear there are many mothers in England who'll go crying for their boys this campaign.

Later a troop of us penetrated into the deep recess among the hills where they had their laager. It seemed evident, from the number of waggons and the amount of clothing and stores left behind and littered in every direction, that the Boers had not expected to be shifted nearly so suddenly as they were. There were heaps of provisions, quantities of coffee tied up in small bags, sugar, rice, biltong, i.e. dried strips of flesh, a sort of bread biscuit much used by them on the march, and made at the farms, and other things. All were done up in small quantities in such a way that individual men could carry it. There were waggons loaded, or half loaded, with old chests and boxes, and many heaped about the ground. Most contained clothes, and the place was strewn in all directions with blankets, greatcoats, and garments of all sorts, colours, and sizes. I annexed a very excellent black mackintosh, quite new and splendidly lined with red; a very martial and imposing garment.

Diligent search was made for any paper or memoranda, which might show the plans or strength of the enemy, but all we found were the love-letters of the young Boers, of which there were vast numbers, extremely amusing. It never seems to have occurred to any of the writers that they could be going to get the worst of it. They seem to put the responsibility for the management of the whole campaign into the hands of the Deity. They are religious but practical. "God will protect us. Here is a pound of coffee," is about what they all come to. It is the fashion to scoff at the calm way in which our enemies have appropriated the services of the Almighty, but all the same it shows a dangerous temper. People who believe they have formed this alliance have always been difficult to beat. You remember Macaulay's Puritan, with his "Bible in one hand and a two-edged sword in the other." The sword has given place to a Mauser now, but I am not sure that we are likely to benefit much by the change. As to the Bible, it is still very much in evidence. Not a single kit but contained one; usually the family one in old brown leather. Now it is an historical fact that Bible-reading adversaries are very awkward customers to tackle, and remembering that, I dislike these Bibles.

More practically important than love-letters and Bibles, we found also a lot of abandoned ammunition, shell and Mauser. Our ambulance parties were at work in the hills. Several Boers, as they fled, had been shot down near the laager. We found one, shot through the thigh, groaning very much, and carried him into the shade of a waggon, and did what we could for him. Meantime some of us had gathered bits of boxes and wood, and made a fire and boiled water. Tea-cups, coffee, sugar, and biscuits were found, and we made a splendid feast in the midst of the desolation. Horrid, you will say, to think of food among the dead and wounded. And yet that coffee certainly was very good. Somehow I believe the Boers understand roasting it better than we do.

Before going we collected all the ammunition and heaped it together and made a pile of wood round it which we set ablaze and then drew out into the plain and reined in and looked back. Never shall I forget the view. The hills, those hills the English infantry had carried so splendidly, were between us and the now setting sun, and though so close were almost black with clean-hacked edges against the sunset side of the sky. To eastward the endless grassy sea went whitening to the horizon, crossed in the distance with the horizontal lines of rich brown and yellow and pure blue, which at sunrise and sunset give such marvellous colouring to the veldt. The air here is exactly like the desert air, very exhilarating to breathe and giving to everything it touches that wonderful clearness and refinement which people who have been brought up in a damp climate and among smudged outlines so often mistake for hardness. Our great ammunition fire in the hollow of the hill burned merrily, and by-and-by a furious splutter of Mauser cartridges began, with every now and then the louder report of shells and great smoke balls hanging in the air. But sheer above all, above yellow veldt and ruined Boer laager, rose the hill, the position we had carried, grim and rigid against the sunset and all black. And, with the sudden sense of seeing that comes to one now and then, I stared at it for a while and said out loud "Belmont!" And in that aspect it remains photographed in my memory.

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