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November 26, 1899.
We marched out from our Orange River Camp on November 22nd, and fought at Belmont on the 23rd. On the 24th we marched north again, and on the 25th (yesterday) fought another action at Graspan, or, as some call it, Enslin—there is still the difficulty about names. March a day and fight a day seems the rule so far.
At home, when you are criticising these actions of Methuen, you must always bear two facts in mind. First, we are bound to keep our line of communication, that is, the railway, open, and hold it as we advance. We can bring Kimberley no relief unless we can open and guard the railway, and so enable supplies to be poured into the town. Second, we are not strong enough, and above all not mobile enough, while holding the railway to attempt a wide flanking movement which might threaten the Boer retreat, or enable us to shell and attack from two sides at once. If we had anything like a decent force of mounted men I suppose we could do it, but with our handful to separate it from the main body would be to get it cut off. "Want of frigates" was to be found on Nelson's heart, as he said on some occasion, and I am sure by this time that "want of cavalry" must be written on poor Methuen's. So you must figure to yourself a small army, an army almost all infantry, and an army tied to the railway on this march; and if we bring off no brilliant strategy, but simply plod on and take hard knocks, well, what else, I ask, under the circumstances can we do?
Yesterday in the early morning we found ourselves emerging from some stony hills with a great plain before us about four miles wide, I should think, with an ugly-looking range of hills bounding it on the north and the railway running north and south on our left. This we had every reason to believe was the enemy's position; toll-gate No. 2 on the Kimberley road. We went on to reconnoitre. Rimington led us straight towards the hills in open order, and when we were somewhere about rifle range from them, we right turned and galloped in line along their front; but no gun or rifle spoke. When we reached the eastern point of the range, we turned it and rode on with the hills on our left; and now, with the Lancers a little farther out on our right, we offered too good a shot for the enemy to resist. They opened on us with, as I thought three, but others think two, guns, and put in some quick and well-directed shots, of which the first one or two fell short and the rest went screaming over our heads and fell among the Lancers.
One point of difference, I notice, so far as a short experience goes, between cavalry and infantry, which is all in favour of the cavalry; and that is, that when they get into fire the infantry go calmly on, while the much wiser cavalry generally run away. We retired from these guns, but when opposite the corner of the range the Lancers got on to some bad ground in front of us, and we had to halt a minute, which gave the Boer Long Tom an excellent chance of a few parting words with us. The first shell came along, making the mad noise they do, whooping and screaming to itself, and plunged into the ground with a loud snort only about thirty or forty yards off. The gunner, having got his range, was not long in sending down another, and when the white curl of smoke appeared lying again on the hillside, one guessed that the individual now on his way would prove a warmish customer. It burst with a most almighty crack, and I involuntarily bent down my head over my horse's neck. "Right over your head," shouted the next man, in answer to my question as to where it burst.
If you are at all interested in "projectiles," you may care to hear that shrapnel is most effective when it bursts over, but a little short of, the object aimed at; the bullets, released by the bursting charge, continuing the line of flight of the shell, which is a downward slant. There is a rather anxious interval, of about ten or fifteen seconds generally after you see the smoke of the gun, and before anything else happens. Then comes the hollow boom of the report, and almost immediately afterwards the noise of the shell, growing rapidly from a whimper to a loud scream, with a sudden note of recognition at the end, as if it had caught sight of and were pouncing on you. It is a curious fact, however, that, in spite of the noise they make, you cannot in the least distinguish in which direction they are coming. You find yourself looking vaguely round, wondering where this yelling devil is going to ground, but till you see the great spurt of earth you have no idea where it will be. We came back across the plain, having more or less located the position and the guns. Rimington with one squadron got into a tight place among some kopjes on our right. The rifle fire was very hot, and at close range. The Major took up his orderly, whose horse was shot, on his own pony, and brought him off. For a moment the squadron came under cover of a hill, but they had to run the gauntlet of the Boer fire to get away. Rimington laughingly asked for a start as his pony was carrying double, and rode first out into the storm of bullets. Several men and horses were hit, but no men killed, and they were lucky in getting off as cheap as they did. We then drew back to a cattle kraal on the slope overlooking the plain, from which we watched the development of the infantry attack.
I usually carry a note-book and pencil in my pocket, partly to jot down any information one may pick up at farms from Kaffirs, &c., and partly to make notes in of the things I see. Here is a note from the kraal.
"10 A.M.—There is a wide plain in front of me, four miles across, flat as the sea, and all along the farther side a line of kopjes and hills rising like reefs and detached islands out of it. You might think the plain was empty at first glance, but, if you look hard, you will see it crawling with little khaki-clad figures, dotted all over it; not packed anywhere, but sprinkled over the whole surface. They are steadily but very leisurely converging on the largest end hill of the opposite range. Meantime, from three or four spots along the sides of those hills, locks and puffs of white smoke float out, followed at long intervals by deep, sonorous reports; and if you look to the left a bit, where our naval guns are at work, you will see the Boer shells bursting close to or over them. The artillery duet goes on between the two, while still the infantry, unmolested as yet, crawls and crawls towards those hills."
This is our first sight of an infantry attack, and it doesn't impress me at first at all. Its cold-bloodedness, the absence of all excitement, make it so different from one's usual notions of a battle. It is really difficult to believe that those little, sauntering figures are "delivering an attack." They don't look a bit as if they were going to fight. The fact is, they have a long distance to cover before reaching the hills, and must go fairly slow. Accordingly, you see them strolling leisurely along as if nothing particular were happening; while the hills themselves, except for the occasional puffs of smoke, look; quite bare and empty; ridges of stone and rock, interspersed with grass tussocks, heaped up against the hot, blue sky.
But now, as they advance farther across the plain, the muffled, significant sound of the Mauser fire begins. The front of the attack is already so far across that it is impossible to see how they are faring from here; but it is evident that our shell fire, heavy though it has been, for all our guns have been in action some time now, has not turned the Boers out of their position. The big chunks of rock are an excellent defence against shrapnel, and behind them they lie, or down in the hollow of the hills, as we saw them earlier in the day, to be called up when the attack approached; and now, gathering along the crest, their fire quickens gradually from single shots to a roar. But it has no effect on that fatal sauntering! Of the men who leave this side nigh on two hundred will drop before they reach the other, but still, neither hurrying nor pausing, on they quietly stroll, giving one, in their uniform motion over that wide plain, a sense as of the force and implacability of some tidal movement. And, as you watch, the significance of it all grows on you, and you see that it is just its very cold-bloodedness and the absence of any dash and fury that makes the modern infantry attack such a supreme test of courage.Of the details of the attack, when it came to the last charge, we could see nothing. The Naval Brigade, who had the hardest part of the position to take, lost terribly, but did the job in a way that every one says was perfectly splendid. It is said, however, that they made the mistake, in the scaling of the hill, of closing together, and so offering a more compact mass to the enemy's fire. We came on behind the infantry with our friends the Lancers, and passed through a gap in the range and on across some open ground and through a few more kopjes as fast as we could go. Then we came in sight of the enemy, and the same thing happened as at Belmont. A lot of horsemen, enough to have eaten us up, that were hanging about the rear of the Boer column, came wheeling out against us, and as we continued to approach, opened fire. Luckily there was good cover for our ponies behind some hillocks, and, leaving them there, we crawled out among the rocks and blazed at the Boers. But this was all we could do. We daren't attack. The only hope was guns, and it was a long and inexplicable time before any guns came up. By that time the Boer column was almost across the plain, winding its way in among the kopjes on the farther side, but the 15-pounders made some very pretty practice at the rear-guard, and considerably hastened their movements. The Boer retreat seems to have been conducted with much coolness and method. They ceased firing their big guns while the attack was still a good way distant, and limbered up and sent them on, the riflemen remaining till the attack was close upon them, and firing their last shots right in our infantry's faces, then rushing down to their horses and mounting and galloping off. No doubt, they exposed themselves a bit in doing this, but pumped and excited men can't be expected to shoot very straight, and I'm afraid their losses were light compared to ours. They have now retired, we presume, to the next range of kopjes, there to smoke their pipes and read their Bibles and await our coming. I suppose we shall be along to-morrow or next day.