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March 8, 1900.
We left our camp on Modder River at midnight of the 6th. The night was clear and starlit, but without moon. Moving down the river to take up our position in the flank march, we passed battalion after battalion of infantry moving steadily up to carry the position in front. The plan is this. The infantry advance up the river as if to deliver a frontal attack; but meanwhile the mounted troops, which have started during the night, are to make a wide detour to the right and get round at the back of the Boer position, so as to hem them in. The idea sounds a very good one, but our plans were upset by the Boers not waiting to be hemmed in. However, it is certain that if they had waited we should have hemmed them in. You must remember that.
The guns go rumbling past in the darkness. We are on the right of the column. Along our left we can just distinguish a long, black river of figures moving solidly on. It flows without break or gap. Now and then a jar or clank, the snort of a horse, the rattle of chains, rises above the murmur, but underneath all sounds the deep-toned rumbling of the wheels as the English guns go by.
Close in front of us is a squadron of Lancers, their long lances, slender, and black, looking like a fringe of reeds against the fast paling sky, and behind us there is cavalry without end. The morning is beautifully clear with a lovely sunrise, and that early hour, with horses fresh, prancing along with a great force of mounted men, always seems to me one of the best parts of the whole show.
As soon as we can see distinctly we make out that we have got to the south of the enemy's hills, and are marching along their flanks. They look like a group of solid indigo pyramids against the sunrise. Are those kopjes out of range? is a question that suggests itself as we draw alongside, leaving them wide on our port beam. Yes, no! No! a lock of smoke, white as snow, lies suddenly on the dark hillside, followed by fifteen seconds of dead silence. Then comes the hollow boom of the report, and immediately afterwards the first whimper, passing rapidly into an angry roar of the approaching shell, which bursts close alongside the Lancers. "D——d good shot," grunts the next man to me, with sleepy approval, as indeed it is.
The order to extend is given, but before the Lancers can carry it out the smoke curl shows again, and this time the shell comes with a yell of triumph slosh into the thickest group of them, and explodes on the ground. There is a flutter of lances for an instant round the spot, and the head and mane of a shot horse seen through the smoke as it rears up, but the column moves steadily on, taking no notice, only now it inclines a little to the right to get away from that long-range gun.
We march on eastward as day broadens, through a country open and grassy, rising and falling in long slopes to the horizon. Suddenly from the far side of one of these ridges comes the rapid, dull, double-knocking of the Mausers. The enemy are firing at our flankers; these draw back under cover of the slope, and we continue to advance, the firing going on all the time, but passing over our heads. Now the Major, curious as to the enemy's position, sends half-a-dozen of our troop up the slope to get a view. These ride up in open order, and are at once made a mark of by the Boer riflemen, luckily at long range. Wing, wing, with their sharp whirring note, came the bullets. They take a rapid survey and return to tell the Major that the scenery in that direction is exceptionally uninteresting, a long slant of grass stretching up for a mile or more, and somewhere about the sky-line Boers shooting. Then comes the usual interval while we wait for "the guns." The guns shortly arrive and a brace of Maxims. These open a hot fire at the top of the hill. They are rather in front of us, and fire back up the slope across our front; the bullets passing sound like the rushing of wind through grass.
After a bit the order is given to take the hill, and we advance firing as we go. Beyond the guns and Maxims other men are moving up. You notice that the Colonials shoot as sportsmen do. The regulars blaze away all the time, seeing nothing, but shooting on spec at the hill top; load and shoot, load and shoot, as hard as they can. Our fellows have a liking for something to shoot at. With their carbines at the ready, they walk quickly forward as if they were walking up to partridges. Now a man sees a head lifted or the grass wave, and instantly up goes the carbine with a crack as it strikes the shoulder. Another jumps up on to an anthill to get a better view. Every time an extra well directed shell falls among the prostrate Boers, one or two start up and run back, and noticing this, several of the Guides wait on the guns, and as each shell screams overhead on its way to the hill top, they stand ready for a snapshot. Wang! goes the shell, up leaps a panic-stricken Dutchman, and crack, crack, crack, go half-a-dozen carbines. Though absolutely without cover, the enemy keep up for some time a stubborn reply, and when at last we reach the crest, tenanted now only by a few dead bodies, we have lost nearly two precious hours. Below across the vast plain the Dutch are in full retreat. It is doubtful already if we shall be able to intercept them.
The doubt is soon decided against us. We are crossing the flat, kopjes in front and a slope on the right. Suddenly several guns open from the kopjes ahead, the shells dropping well among us. At this coarse behaviour we pause disgusted. An A.D.C. galops up. We are to make a reconnaissance (hateful word!) on the right to see if the slope is occupied. "Will the Guides kindly ...?" and the officer waves his hand airily towards the hill and bows. We are quite well aware that the slope is occupied, for we have seen Boers take up their position there, and several experimental shots have already been fired by them. However, "anything to oblige" is the only possible answer, and the squadron right wheels and breaks into a canter. Once on the rise the bullets come whizzing through our ranks quick enough. Down goes one man, then another, then another. Maydon of the Times, who is with us, drops, but only stunned by a grazing bullet, as it turns out. The Life Guards deploying on our left catch it hot, and many saddles are emptied.
A charge at this time would have scattered the Boers instantly (they were very weak) and saved both time and lives. Instead of this, however, it is thought more advisable to keep every one standing still in order to afford a more satisfactory test of Boer marksmanship. It is very irksome. The air seems full of the little shrill-voiced messengers. Our ponies wince and shiver; they know perfectly well what the sound means. At last the fact that the hills are held is revealed to the sagacity of our commanders, and we are moved aside and the guns once more come into action.
It is easy (thank goodness!) to be wise after the event. I find every one very discontented over this action, and especially the cavalry part of it. Had we made a good wide cast instead of a timid little half-cock movement, and come round sharp, we should have intercepted the Boer convoy. As it is, we lose two more hours at this last stand which brings us till late in the afternoon, and soon afterwards, on approaching the river, we see five miles off the whole Dutch column deliberately marching away eastward. Our failure stares us in the face, and we see with disgust that we have been bluffed and fooled and held in check all day by some sixty or eighty riflemen, while the main body, waggons, guns, and all, are marching away across our front. "The day's proceedings," says one of our officers to me with laughable deliberation, "afford a very exact representation of the worst possible way of carrying out the design in hand."