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Bethlehem, July 14, 1900.
Whenever in this campaign we have dealt the enemy what looked like a crushing blow, he has always hit back instantly at us. When Methuen reached the limit of his advance at the Modder River victory, the Boers were round immediately threatening us from behind. When we took Bloemfontein they at once swarmed round to the east and south, and dealt us two nasty blows at Sanna's Post and Reddersberg; and no sooner had we taken Pretoria than the same activity was displayed again.
They threatened us now from two points. Louis Botha had collected a large force, and was watching us from the hills east of the town, while the everlasting De Wet, far south, was breaking up the railway and burning our letters. The first thing we did, and we did it the very day after entering the capital, was to march against Botha. Ian Hamilton has paid our little corps the compliment of taking it on as his bodyguard. He is a general that inspires every one under him with great confidence. It is curious, by the way, how very soon troops get to know the worth of a leader; just as a pack of hounds knows by instinct when it is properly handled. Outsiders may argue about this or that general, and analyse his tactics, and never very likely get much nearer the truth (for there is a monstrous lot of luck one way or the other in all manoeuvres, and the ones often succeed that didn't ought to, and vice versa); but once you are under a man, you don't need to argue; you know. We all know that Ian Hamilton, with his pleasant well-bred manner, and the mutilated hand dangling as he rides, is the best man we have had over us yet, and we would all do great things to show our devotion.
The Diamond Hill action was one of those great big affairs which it would be impossible to explain without a plan of the country and a lot of little flags. Our attack from extreme left to right was spread over a frontage of, I daresay, twenty miles. The idea was for the mounted troops to turn the enemy's flanks and let in the infantry in front. Ian Hamilton had to deal with the Boer left flank, French with the right. Of course we saw and heard nothing of French, who might as well have been fighting in another planet, so far as we knew. Our difficulty here, as on some former occasions, was to find the limit of their flanks. The more we stretch out, the more they stretch out. They have the advantage of being all mounted, while the bulk of our force is infantry, massed inertly in the middle; and also from the lofty position they occupy they can command a bird's-eye view of the wide valley across which we are advancing, and perceive the disposition of our forces, and in what strength we are threatening the various points of defence, while their forces are quite concealed from us. This is so much in their favour that, on our flank at least, it is we, and not they, who are threatened with being outflanked.
Their position could scarcely have been stronger if nature had designed it for the purpose. A low range of hills gives admittance on the west side to a long wide valley, and on the east side of this a steep rocky range rises boldly up, showing in the sky a level outline like a rampart fringed with wall-like slabs of rock or detached masses, giving excellent cover from shrapnel. But besides this higher and last line of defence, there are some lower hills and slopes which project from the main rampart and command the valley, while they are in turn commanded by the heights. It is a two-step position, in fact. You carry the lower step first, and immediately come under the fire of the upper. The General told me next day that he thought it as strong as anything he had seen on the Natal side, and Winston Churchill set the matter at rest by pronouncing it stronger in point of formation than Spion Kop.
In the first day's fighting we drove them from the western hills and across the valley, which was more fertile than usual and full of cover, until we had forced them into the two-step eastern range. My own work lay right out on the flank end, at the very finger-tips, where the farthest limit of each force was trying to feel a way round the other. Here, with some of the Camerons, we felt about the hills, shelling them with a couple of guns for Boer sharpshooters, and occasionally flushing one or two. We were rather detached and out of the main action, feeling rather like a gun that has been sent to stop birds from "going back" while the main battue is at work in front. We stayed out all day, and as we rode in that night to headquarters the whole valley under the starlight was echoing like a great gallery and bustling with the multitude of our army arranging itself and settling down for the night. We picked our way through the various convoys hurrying forward in search of their brigades, but often losing their way or getting off the track, checked by muddy fords, where an engulfed team wallows piteously, barring the passage. We pass detachments of infantry hurrying in tired and silent, and meet other detachments with blankets and greatcoats coming out on picket. Waifs and strays, by ones and twos, who have lost their way, shout for guidance, hallooing dismally for the brigades or regiments to which they belong, and which many have small hope of rejoining that night. Meantime, right down the valley and far across it, the various camp-fires twinkle out like glow-worms. The air is keen and frosty, and stars, clear and sharp as icicles, glitter all over the sky. Above everything is still and calm, very well arranged evidently, and everything in its proper place. Below all is confusion, noise, and darkness, disappointment, and difficulty, vague wandering to and fro, lamentations, and general chaos. They manage these things better up there! However, after a bit order begins to reign. The several units draw together. The camp-fires are beacons. The waggons struggle up. The bleating of the lost sheep is gradually hushed, as one by one they find their way to their various folds, and slowly, in spite of darkness and broken ground, the tangle is smoothed out.
By a small farm, where the General lodges, blazes a huge fire. Round it gather some staff officers, and among them, recognised from afar, are the welcome tiger-skins of the Guides' officers. The Major sits by the blaze in that familiar attitude of his, like a witch in "Macbeth," with a wolf-skin karross drawn over his shoulders, and the firelight on his swarthy face as he turns it up with a grim laugh to chaff the others standing round. But there is rather a gloom on the party to-night. News has just come in that poor Airlie, charging at the head of his Lancers, has been killed. Many here knew him, and every one who knew him seems to have been fond of him.
Winston Churchill turns up and enlivens us. There are several colonels and senior officers squatting about, and Churchill takes the opportunity of giving them a bit of his mind. He is much annoyed with the day's proceedings. He has been a good deal shot at; so has the Duke, and so has the General. They have had to use their Mauser pistols. This sort of thing should not happen. Then where was French? Checked, indeed! a pretty fine thing! And the Guards? The Guards were somewhere where they had no business to be, instead of being somewhere else. Would any one kindly tell him why the Guards were not somewhere else? And Churchill (he has a face like a good-natured child, and looks about fourteen) eyes the old colonels, who fidget nervously round the fire like disturbed hens. He talks and argues incessantly, but very cleverly. Before he goes he dashes off a sketch of South Africa's future with a few words about farming and gold-mining. He gives us a cup of hot cocoa all round, which he produces from nowhere, like a conjuring trick, re-arranges our fire, tells us when the war will be over, and strolls off (daring the old colonels with his eye to so much as look at him) to the farm to give the General his final instructions about to-morrow's action.
Next day our infantry established itself on the lower step of the Boer position, but the final ridge still remained in their hands. It was a ding-dong fight between the two, for the positions were within half-rifle shot of each other. However, we could not turn them out, though we got a field-battery right up in the firing line, which cracked shrapnel over them as hard as ever it could load and fire. They had determined to hold that ridge till night gave them the opportunity of moving off their waggons and guns safely; and hold it they did. No doubt we could have carried it by storm, but crossing that thousand yards of open ground would have meant a terrible loss, and the General did not attempt it. As it was, there was a great deal of banging and blazing, almost like the old Modder days, for a time; guns hard at it, and Mausers and Lee-Metfords jabbering away at a great rate, though, as both sides were under cover, the loss was not heavy. The firing went on till pitch dark, and we camped close under the ridge we had won. Next morning we found the ridge vacant, with only heaps of empty cartridge cans and an occasional blood-stain on the rocks to show where our enemy had lain.
A little way out from Pretoria there are some very smart-looking new houses, what they call "villa residences" in England, built in the style, a sort of mild and tepid Gothic (what I call grocer's Gothic, for it always reminds me of brown sugar and arrowroot), common around watering-places; small gables sticking out everywhere, till it looks like a cluster of dog-kennels; walls faced with ornamental tiles and lath and plaster; small shrubberies round, and a name on the gate. There were two especially beautiful ones. The General had one and we had the other. Ours was quite new. There was no furniture in it; but this, as we had been so long without it, we did not miss. But everything we really needed—gorgeous wall-papers, and dados, and polished floors, and electric-bells, and stained-glass windows—was there. We had hot baths at the Grand Hotel, and we dined at the club, and we forgot all about the war, and the veldt, and the dust, and the long marches, and the Boer lurking in ambush, and the whispering bullet from the hill. This went on for two days, and then we marched again, and we have been marching ever since.
We left Pretoria on June 19th, and, taking it easy, reached Bethlehem on July 9th, doing a bit under 200 miles in the twenty days. The meaning of the new scheme begins to dawn on us. Clements and Paget have come up from the west; Rundle is down south-west, near Ficksburg; the Basuto border runs up from there south and south-east, and within the ground thus enclosed we have penned a very considerable force of the enemy, among whom is that Jack-in-the-box, Christian De Wet. We know they are there, and indeed we have little fights with their scouts every day. The question is, how are we to collar them? The country is very broken and hilly and very extensive.
Hunter is looking after us now. Poor Ian Hamilton, as you will know, had an accident at Heidelberg. His horse put a foot in an antbear's hole, just in front of me as it happened, and came down, flinging the general forward over his head. I thought he was killed, he lay so still, but it was only his collar-bone and a bad shaking. He is in the field again now.
Hunter has a great reputation as a fighter, which is rather alarming, especially when we are confronted with such a poisonous country as the one before us now; a medley of big mountain ranges, fantastically heaped, stretching thirty miles south to Basutoland, and forming part of the great mountain formation that reaches to and culminates in the Drakensberg range. These hills are garrisoned by about 7000 Boers with several guns, and De Wet to lead them; altogether a formidable force. There is a saying, that you should not bite off more than you can chew. I hope we have not done that. Hunter looks as if he could chew a good lot, I think. Still the job is likely to be a difficult one to handle, and if he asks my advice I shall tell him to leave it to Rundle.
I should think a life of this sort would be likely to have some permanent effect on one's mind and intellect. The last mail—that is to say, the last news of any sort of the outside world—which we have received was on April 27th before leaving Bloemfontein; three months less a week since any whisper concerning events or people out of our immediate sight has reached us. My ignorance of things in general weighs on me. It is a taste of life in the dark ages before modern inventions kept one in touch with the world.
During all this time we have been wandering like an army in a dream over the unlimited surface of the veldt. The same programme is repeated day by day. A little before dawn you hear through your blanket-folds the first unwelcome "Saddle up," and the muttered curses in reply. You unwind yourself with groans. A white-frost fog blots out everything at fifty yards, and a white sugary frost encrusts the grass. These first hours are piercingly cold, for it is now mid-winter with us. A cup of water left overnight is frozen solid. You dress by simply drawing your revolver-strap over your shoulder, and flinging your blanket round you, make your way to where a couple of black boys are bending over the beginnings of a fire, and to which several other blanketed and shivering figures are converging with the same thought—coffee—in every mind.
Then the great army column that has curled itself up like a caterpillar for the night begins slowly to uncurl. On the march our huge convoy stretches out in line, waggon following waggon along the rude track, and extending to a length of nearly ten miles. At night, of course, it collects (parks is the proper word) at some selected spot where the ground is favourable, and where in the shape of a sluit, river, or farm-dam there is water. On the slopes and hills around infantry pickets are set, while the convoy and main camp are massed in the hollow beneath. You must not think of our camp in the English sense of the word. We have no tents. The men sleep tightly rolled in greatcoat and blanket, stretched on the bare earth, with saddles for pillows. If anything takes you about the camp at night, you might think you were walking among thick strewn corpses after a fearful carnage, so stiff and still the frosted bodies lie on the ground.
Now the great creature wakes for its next crawl. First its antennæ, or long feelers, are pushed out in front. Its scouts, that is, among which, if you belong to our corps, you will probably find yourself, go cantering on ahead. They pass the pickets on the hill, who promptly shoulder blankets and turn back to camp, and break into extended order, and throw out little feelers of their own in front and to the sides as they enter an unexplored country. Following them come several companies of infantry, a block of solid strength, marching at the top of the column, and a battery or section of guns. Then comes the long line of convoy waggons, piled high with provisions, fodder, and kit, strengthened and protected at intervals by companies of infantry marching at ease, with the two great cow-guns somewhere about the middle. The tail of the column, like the head, is strengthened by a considerable force of infantry, followed at an interval of a mile or so by the mounted rearguard, which has scattered its scouts far and wide across the track of the column, and withdraws them from point to point as we advance. Likewise to left and right, far out on the plain, the horsemen of the flank guards are scattered in little bands of twos and threes, cantering along or stopping and spying, sniffing cautiously round kopjes or peeping into farms, and by-and-by you will probably hear from one direction or other a few scattered single shots, and yonder two scouts in the distance, lately advancing so quietly, are now seen to be turned and galloping back as hard as they can split, while two or three Mausers crack at them from the sky-line.
It is a pretty sight, from some hill far in advance, to turn back and watch the army coming into view. You push on, scouts feeling the way, to occupy some prominent kopje on the line of march, and climbing up and sitting among the rocks, command with your glasses a view far and wide over the plain. The air has been very cold and sharp, with an intense penetrating cold hitherto, but now the sun is shining and its mellow warmth is instantly felt. The rich pure colour-lines, only seen when the sun, rising or setting, is low in the sky, lie straightly ruled across the plain, brown and orange and pale yellow, and in the distance blue. The ten-mile off rocks look but a mile in this air. Every object, distant or near, is exact to the least detail. So clear are the outlines you would think there was no atmosphere here at all, and that you might be looking out over the unaired landscapes of the moon. One would think that such an air would breed an exceptional race, and that the men, and horses too, for that matter, of this country would show something of the Arab character, sensitive, fiery, and high strung. Yet nothing can be conceived less Arab like than your stolid but practical Dutchman and the underbred screw he rides.Left and right of you, your two or three flankers, half a mile off, have halted, in obedience to your halting, and are standing by their horses' heads scanning the country. Under the kopje your main body are sitting about, while their ponies, with bridles thrown over their heads, graze. Far back, two or three miles, the bits of dark kilt showing behind their khaki aprons, a company of the Camerons comes into view, the brown colour so exactly matching the plain that they are first visible only by their motion. Here come the flank guards, sprinkled far out over the country. And now, at the point where the distant kopjes slope to the plain, the air grows heavy with dust-wreaths, rising like steam from a cauldron, and underneath, slowly emerging, comes something dark and solid. It is the head of the column. The great caterpillar is crawling forward. You must push on—"Stand to your horses!"