Description of the Action--The Final Charge--Necessity of continuing to Advance--Prisoners--Their Impressions--Fire Tactics.
On the 10th of May we made an early start from Bloomplaats, leaving the camp at 4.30 a.m. This means being up at three o'clock, and it was pitch dark at that hour; but the General's object was to reach the drift, a few miles away, before daybreak. This we did just before early dawn, and found a company of the Derbyshire Regiment holding it on the far side. There was water, about a couple of feet, in the drift proper, but boldly--and like fools--we waded across and clambered up the other side, and extended among the mimosa bushes. Fools we were, indeed, as a few yards further up the sluit we could have crossed dry shod, and saved ourselves the tender feet from which most of us suffered, brought about by a long day's marching with wet socks--which resulted in our poor feet being simply boiled in our boots.
It was just after dawn and fairly cold, so that we were glad to see the sun rise and to get on the move ourselves again. Bye-and-bye an order came for us to pass on through mimosa bushes which were scattered about on the north bank of the Zand stream, towards the hilly ground on the east. Towards the north the ground was open and level and treeless for a couple of miles; then it rose a little, and ended on the skyline with a biggish kopje to the north west. To the east the ground also rose a little, and about 2 miles away culminated in a ridge running across our front from north-east down to east, gradually getting higher, and ending in a confused jumble of black hills running down to the river; somewhere among these black hills being the gun, which I have previously mentioned as having dropped a shell or two into the Mounted Infantry picket, near our camp at Bloomplaats. The whole of this ground was treeless and grassy, but a few mimosa bushes were scattered about on the hills to the east, and there was a good fringe of these prickly bushes down on the river banks.
Through these bushes, and past a couple of isolated houses, we were working our way in column of companies, extended, towards a low hill, an underfeature which jutted out towards us from the higher hills beyond. Having gained the shelter of this, we closed in a bit, ascended the slope, and lay down in quarter column, the leading company just below the top of the hill, and the rear company at its foot.
So far all had been peaceful and quiet, and some of the hungry ones had already started on their biscuits, when phit, ping-boom, phit, phit, came the Mausers, and we woke up to try and grasp the situation. The General had sent forward a few men over the hill-top to the other side, Captain Robinson and some of C company had gone, and the enemy, who, up to now had lain low, had greeted them with every demonstration of affection, and continued to do so for some little time. Our men could do nothing but take cover and return the fire of the invisible Boers: they had played their part, had drawn the fire of the enemy, and had induced him to show his hand.
Apparently expecting that a column of troops would soon advance against them over the top of the hill, following on the track of our few men of C company, the enemy now maintained a heavy rifle, shell and pom-pom fire on the edge of the crest line, a few feet above us. We, sitting on the ground close under the lee of the hill, were perfectly safe, and could not be touched by any Boer shell so we had nothing to do but to listen to the bursting of the shells and to watch for the fragments striking the ground beyond. The noise was terrific, and at one time there was a perfectly awful outburst of roars and screams and pounding, as the pieces of shell went shrieking and whizzing over our heads, while, throughout the fearful din, we could hear that infernal pom-pom-pom-pom-pom, five times, which denoted that the Vicker's-Maxim, belonging to the Boers, was hurling its disgusting little shells at us.
The whirring and the shriek of these spiteful little beasts, as they strike the ground and burst into hundreds of vicious, stinging fragments, is, at first experience, the most disconcerting sound that I know. Throughout the whole of this pandemonium--which lasted perhaps ten minutes, and then settled down into the occasional dull roar of a bursting shrapnel, and the whiz and flop of the fragments--the Mausers were going ping-boom, ping-boom, and the enemy's Maxim was in full blast at frequent intervals.
Sitting under the side of the hill, we could see to our rear, most of the other troops of the Division, all advancing to take their part in the attack, and hastening lest they should be too late. Following in our path through the mimosas, and in similar formation, came one of the regiments of our Brigade; they had just reached an open space half a mile in rear, when, being apparently spotted by the Boer gunners, plump came a shell, close in front of the column. A little to the left it was, so the bursting fragments flew harmlessly onward, while the onlookers drew a deep breath of relief, and the regiment quickened its pace, well knowing what was to be expected next. Soon it came, plunk-plunk, and we held our breath; two shells, two clouds of dust, in rear of the hastening battalion Luckily the Boer gunners had not allowed sufficiently for the distance advanced by the regiment, while they were laying the guns.
Following in rear of this battalion came the Camerons, but they wisely led off to their right, and got under shelter of the high banks of the river--not, however, without being spotted and plugged at by the enemy, harmlessly as it turned out; and so they passed on beyond us.
Far away out in the open veldt dashed a battery of our Artillery: round it swung and unlimbered: in a second or two off trotted the horses to shelter, and the gunners began to drop their shells, at 3,000 yards, on to the ridge held by the Boers--not, however, without reply, as the enemy shelled that battery with vigour for some little time. Over and over again did we, from our shelter, see a cloud of dust rise amongst the guns, now in front, now between them, now in rear; and yet the little black specks ran unconcernedly from the guns to the limbers and back again, and every now and then, with a sheet of flame and a muffled roar, did the gunners send back their defying answer to their hidden enemies.
A similar game was being played on the other side of the river, where, miles away, came a battery in column of route, heading unostentatiously for the drift: suddenly the enterprising Boers flopped a shell, followed by another, first on this side of the battery, then over their heads. "Action-right" was the yell, round wheeled the guns, and boom-boom, came the answer to the Boers. A few shells exchanged places, and then the battery limbered up and trekked on quietly to the drift.
In the far distance, towards the south-west, came acres of troops, clouds of cavalry, columns of infantry and the dense dust of great baggage lines, while over the sky-line sailed peacefully a huge balloon, looking unconcernedly down at us pigmies below, striving to oust each other from tiny little kopjes. This was Tucker's Division, coming up from the railway on our left rear, and by this movement causing the Boers, in due course of time, automatically to fall back from their right flank.
About this time, we also began to move--half of B, the rear company, being sent out to our left front, where a battery was coming into action behind the hill by indirect laying, and the other half moving along about a mile to our left, and slightly to the rear, to a point where the ground rose gradually in a long gentle swell until it joined the ridge above. This half company was sent by way of keeping an eye on the other side of the grassy slope, and it soon reached the ground and lay down in extended order. Letter A Company was then dribbled out, man by man, each about ten yards apart, in the same direction, with orders to move towards the end of the ridge: they came under some long range fire as soon as they quitted the shelter of our hill, and, bearing off rather too much to their left, eventually got round where B company was, lay down and opened fire. The Volunteer company was then sent on in the same way, and worked along to the spur, where A and B companies were gradually creeping along, upwards towards the ridge. Meanwhile D and E companies had moved out about a quarter of a mile to their left, and then turned and advanced towards the ridge. C company remained where it had halted earlier in the day, and was joined by F, both companies being held in reserve. The Maxim gun had been sent to a low spur on our left, where it came into action at 2,200 yards against a sangar on the top of the ridge, so as to cover the advance of the other companies; and the remaining two companies, G and H, were brought along behind the Maxim, and then sent forward in front of it.
This was the situation at about the middle of the morning. The battalion was extended over about a mile and a half of front, facing a ridge occupied by the enemy and distant some 1,500 yards, the companies being, in order from right to left, thus: D, E, ½B, G, H, Vols., A, with C and F and half B in reserve. Our right was on a spur rising up towards the ridge, the centre was lined across a large open valley, and the left was on another spur which also ran up the ridge.
There was a round kraal on the summit of the ridge, at about the centre, in which the enemy had a gun, and where one or two men could be seen moving. The battery, over our heads, shelled this spot briskly, but without much effect, and we, from a closer range of 2,200 yards, turned our Maxim on to it, and searched the whole hillside in the neighbourhood. After a while a man, shown up distinctly against the sky-line, walked calmly out of this kraal, passed along and disappeared over the hill. One or two more followed, and then a little clump with, presumably, the gun in their midst, moved slowly out and away beyond view. All this time a heavy fire was being kept up by all the companies in the firing line, the Maxim was stuttering out bullets like mad, and the guns were dropping shells along the ridge, whilst these plucky Boers calmly and deliberately moved their gun clean away.
The instant it was gone, our slow and cumbrous Maxim hitched in its mules and advanced to a closer position, where, behind a wall at about 1,600 yards, its fire again searched out the slopes of the hill, especially to the left of the circular kraal--the spot where the enemy's gun had been--where a number of stone walls, rising in tiers, seemed to point out a likely hiding-place for Boer sharpshooters. Meanwhile the firing line had been gradually closing up nearer to the foot of the hill, and we had spotted, at 600 yards, a Boer using black powder behind one of these stone walls, and were making it warm for him. Another advance or two, and we were nearer still to the ridge, when suddenly, like a flock of pigeons, up rose a crowd of men from behind the tiers of stone walls, and bolted up the hill. With a roar, our men were on their feet and after the Boers, racing madly up the hill, shouting, cheering, cursing the heavy blankets bumping at their backs, yelling with delight, regardless of the shells from our battery in rear screaming and whistling over their heads and plumping on the ridge.
Panting and blowing, the heavy equipment dragging them back, our fellows struggled on, and when close to the top of the ridge, with a final rush (headed in the centre by Markwick, Treagus, and H. B. Mills), gained the summit and paused to take breath. A few Boers had waited too long and now remained for ever, one with Mobsby's bayonet in him, whilst the others were trekking as fast as their ponies could carry them away from the cursed rooineks.
Numbers of loose ponies were about, and a few Boers opened fire on us from a knoll about 600 yards to our right front; while many others could be seen riding rapidly away. To hasten their departure, we fired a few volleys at 1,100 yards at these gentry, the squad who fired at them being rather a mixed one, consisting as it did of the Second in Command, the Adjutant, a Second Lieutenant, and four or five men hastily scratched together--the whole under command of Lieut. Ashworth, who had only enough breath remaining to yell "Fire!" It is said that the oldest soldier of this squad "pulled off" and spoiled a volley; but perhaps he did not know very much about musketry!
The advance was continued very shortly afterwards, as soon as the men had got their breath; and soon all firing ceased, the Boers disappeared, and we devoted ourselves to looking about us and wondering where the Cavalry had got to.
After a few minutes, by which time most of the battalion had come up, we continued our advance as we were, without reforming, down the slope of the hill, across the valley, and up the gentle slope of the opposite hill, where we posted look-out men and reformed the companies.
Those that were on the right originally had been pushed off slightly to the right front, after occupying the hill we attacked, in order to search a kopje some little way off. Coming down the hill, after the rout of the Boers, everyone was on the look out for loot, as there were all sorts of articles strewn about, such as rifles, saddles, bandoliers, blankets, and great-coats; while there were numbers of loose ponies, ready saddled and bridled, quietly cropping the herbage. Quite a dozen of these were promptly annexed and mounted by the captors, who rode along in great pride. Each had a great coat and a blanket rolled on the pommel, with a horse blanket under the saddle, and a couple of saddle-bags, usually containing a quantity of Mauser cartridges in addition to some food. One man was lucky enough to find a bag of coffee and a bag of sugar on one saddle, and others found Boer tobacco, dried fruit and other small articles. Several dead Boers lay about on the ridge, and a number of dead and wounded horses were on the reverse slope of the hill, whilst our Volunteers, when they came in with A company from the left flank, brought about a dozen prisoners, who had surrendered.
It was a fortunate thing for us that we did not remain on the top of the ridge, but continued our rapid advance without delay, as this prevented the Boers from collecting and opening fire on us. That they attempted to do this is certain, as one man of ours was shot dead on the top of the hill, and Second-Lieut. Paget was severely wounded, about the same time. The sharpshooters, however, who caused us these casualties, fled and left us in peace, when the companies on the right advanced towards them.
The usual practice at a field day is for the operations to conclude when the final charge has been delivered. Everyone then stands about, preferably on the skyline, in full view of the supposed retreating enemy, who may perhaps be merely removing to a better position in rear.
To do this on active service is, I think, criminal. The advance should certainly be continued by some, if not all, of the first line; or at any rate the first arrivals should push on so as to cover the advance of those behind them. There should be no stopping; the enemy should be kept on the run, unless, of course, he has taken up another position in rear, in which case a bold front should be shown and he should be attacked at once while he is disorganised. There is always, however, the possibility of a trap having been prepared, and it has been a favourite trick of the Afridis to draw on our men to a position where they can be shot down at known ranges; so that considerable caution is necessary.
After forming up the whole battalion and calling the rolls, we joined the rest of the Brigade, and moved on a few miles to Erasmus Spruit, a nice little camp with good water and shade, and plenty of grass and wood. Now that the excitement was over we all felt pretty tired, and were glad to rest and get a meal.
The next morning we had some conversation with the prisoners, one or two of whom spoke English. They were the usual farm hand sort of type, some of them being young lads, of about the stamp of the recruits whom we get. They did not seem to mind having been captured, and were very grateful for what tobacco, coffee and other little luxuries we could give them.
One of them told me that the Maxim fire was terrible--they dared not put their heads up to fire.
I have never forgotten that remark, since the man made it to me, and there is a great deal in it to which the attention of company officers and section leaders might with advantage be drawn. The main point is that we Infantry do not fire nearly enough ammunition when delivering an attack. Of course we see no enemy: we only hear the crack of his rifle and the whiz of his bullets: but we sometimes see the splash of the bullet on the ground, and can from that obtain some slight idea of his position at the time. Having found that, a constant hail of bullets should be directed at all parts of the position, high and low, at rocks, at bushes and at all places likely to afford a hiding spot, with the object always in view of making the enemy keep his head down behind his cover.
For this purpose volley firing is useless, and what should be adopted is controlled individual firing, using the magazine always, and refilling it behind cover when, and as often as, an opportunity occurs of so doing. There should be no breaks or intervals, either in the firing or in the advance: the latter should be continuous, as in the old skirmishing days, until the last possible moment, when, if the men cannot advance any further, they should take cover and employ themselves in firing as rapidly as possible.
The wretched system of false economy in the use of blank ammunition at instructional field days, when a man carries perhaps five rounds in his pouch and five in reserve, is responsible for the fact that men cannot be got to fire fast enough in the field, and that they lie under cover and husband their ammunition, firing only occasional shots, as they have been taught in peace time. They forget that they are now more widely extended than formerly and that one man now occupies as much space as was formerly allotted to five, and that he should, therefore, fire five times as fast as before. The present system of widely extended lines is merely what was learned by the troops employed in the Chitral and Tirah expeditions, two or three years ago; and the system of fighting adopted by the Afridis is practically the same as that used by the Boers in the Free State and the Transvaal.
Owing to the widely extended lines adopted by us in our advance at Zand River, and to the steady shelling by the batteries which the enemy received during the attack, our casualties were not very heavy.
The following order was published by the General on the day after the battle:--
Twistniet, Zand River,
The Major General Commanding desires to express his pleasure at the behaviour of the brigade yesterday. The good leading of the officers and the conduct of the men enabled a strong and numerously held position to be captured with a slight loss.
 Our losses on this day were as follows:--
KILLED. Private W. Webb D Company. G. Merritt H Company. W. Goodes E Company
WOUNDED. Second Lieut. R. E. Paget Corpl. W. Backshall B Company. Private E. Cam B Company. W. Osborne G Company P. O Connell H Company. G. Shepherd C Company. H. Overy E Company