Boer main position--Reconnaissance by Lieut. Morphett--Advance of C.I.V.'s--General advance--Failure of Boers to occupy outer ridge--They hold the second crest in force--No further advance possible--Nightfall.
The following day, the 12th of June, we did not start very early, but moved after breakfast up to the hill we had attacked and captured the previous day, where A company was still on picket. Arrived there, we waited for some time, until the afternoon in fact, before we moved again.
In front of us, across the valley, was a long ridge, steep of access on our side and, apparently, flat on top; this ridge on our right ran down into the valley in a grassy slope, becoming less and less steep as it trended further away; but on our left it became more and more precipitous, until, in the far distance, it appeared almost like a wall. There were no signs of the enemy on it, but they were there all the same.
There was a farm in the valley below us surrounded by trees and vegetation, said to belong to one Botha, and the road wound along from our left rear past this farm, and disappeared in a cleft in the hills in front of us. We all realised that the position held by the enemy was a terribly strong one, and on the flanks it appeared, as far as we could see with our glasses, to run for miles in a similar way; and there did not seem to be any break or change in the surface of the ground opposite to it, which continued to present the same grassy undulating slopes as far as we could see.
On our left, miles away, we could hear an occasional gun fired, and on our right there had been a shot or two from the Artillery; but for the moment all was still and peaceful, so we sat and nibbled our biscuits and waited.
About one o'clock the five-inch gun, from somewhere in our left rear, began shelling Botha's farm and the ridge near it and beyond: they made excellent practice, and searched the slopes of the hill thoroughly. Near the farm there was a sort of cleft in the hills, into which the road ran: we could trace its existence for some little way back into the hill by the brushwood growing on the edge of the cleft, and just now we were watching this place, some of us, with exceeding great interest. The General had ordered two companies to proceed in a short time towards this cleft, to move up it, and then to swing round to the right and take the hill in flank, thus covering the advance of the remainder of the Brigade, who were prolonging the line on our right, and were to attack on the part of the hill previously mentioned, where the grassy slopes were more gentle and ran easily up to the summit.
Now, for all we knew, this cleft might have been full of Boers on all sides, before and behind, and we were not looking forward to what was evidently going to be a nasty piece of work; but the matter was settled, we had got our orders, and we meant to carry them out to the best of our ability, somehow or other. So we watched with renewed interest the shells of a cow gun dropping about on the ridge and the slope of the hill, experiencing feelings of much satisfaction when one or two, as they occasionally did, fell plump into the cleft in the hill, where we hoped crowds of the enemy were concealed. Although not visible, we knew they were there, as shots occasionally came over and struck the ground near us, when anyone incautiously went too far forward, to look at the position.
Towards two o'clock, the General wished a few men sent over in the direction of the farm, to feel our way; so Lieut. Morphett and a section of E company went out, widely extended, and with orders to go to the Farm and signal back any information, and to occupy the walls and hold out at the Farm until reinforcements arrived.
Directly this small party showed themselves over the ridge behind which we were lying, fire was opened on them by the enemy, who on this occasion showed their stupidity in wasting their ammunition in firing at extreme ranges. We could not, of course, see from what point of the hill the firing was coming, but from the direction in which the bullets were dropping and the way the dust flew up, we could see that those of the enemy who were firing were somewhere on our left front. So we got some men out and opened a steady dropping fire on the slopes of the hill to our left, and especially on a row of poplar trees which looked a good place in which to conceal sharpshooters. Our maxim gun came up too, and rained a hail of bullets all over the hillside at varying ranges. This is about all the good this machine gun is in the advance, because, when the actual forward movement takes place, the gun cannot keep pace and is left behind: of course a gun on a light field carriage could be brought on by hand, but, during the campaign, the gun we were supplied with was a huge, cumbrous affair, as big as a field gun and about as heavy. It took two mules to draw it, and all sorts of manoeuvres and operations had to be gone through before a single round could be fired. In this respect the pattern of machine gun needs considerable improvement before it will ever be of any sound practical use in the field, with infantry and in the advance, at any rate.
After a while the enemy's fire lessened, although it still continued to some extent, and we could see Morphett and his few men working their way through the trees, and up to and beyond the farm. Soon they signalled to us that all was clear and no enemy at the farm, but reported some to be on a ridge in front of the farm, and in the row of trees to the left, which we had already searched with our fire. So we peppered this row of trees again with the Maxim, but were unable to develope any rifle fire on the ridge, as the distance was rather too great for us to fire over the heads of our men in front--some of the shots might have dropped short.
During this little episode the Derbyshire had been sent miles away to the right, and the City Imperial Volunteers had moved against the slopes of the hill, some way to our right. It was pleasant to watch their advance party skirmishing up the slopes, which became steeper near the top. They did it very well, and we watched them with much interest, pushing their way, well extended, moving slowly so as to keep their breath, going steadily on advancing and gaining a firmer footing all the time, although they must have been in momentary expectation of being engulfed in a torrent of fire. We could see their advanced scouts out in front creeping up to the crest line, and we waited, breathlessly, fearing to hear at any instant the infernal din and clatter of a heavy musketry fire opened on their column. Still they crept on and the supports got closer up, and we were in dread that the Boers were waiting only until the supports came closer up yet, before they opened a furious and disorganising fire as they did at Magersfontein.
At last the skirmishers gained the crest line, and we could see them run forward and disappear over the ridge, followed by the supports and the remainder of the regiment. Curiously enough, the ridge was not held by the Boers, and the advance of the Brigade could take place at once. Our little scheme of attack in the cleft was not, therefore, required, as the C.I.V.'s had gained the summit; but the General sent forward two companies to occupy the hill overlooking the farm.
Why the Boers had neglected to occupy this long ridge and splendid position, I have never been able to understand: there was every point in their favour, except one, and we should have been compelled to make frontal attacks all along the line, at very great loss, no doubt, before we could have got a footing on the ridge.
Once up there, the weak point was revealed: there was no line of retreat for the Boers, except over open country, where we could have slated them handsomely as they went. I think, all the same, that they should have held this fine ridge all along its length, and eventually withdrawn to a secondary position in rear, which they could have held for any length of time. This secondary position, we found, they were actually occupying in strength, but they neglected the primary position, and thus lost an opportunity, to my mind, of checking our advance for, possibly, another day, and doing us a lot of harm besides. However, the enemy's mistakes are always our gain.
Our two companies advanced in column of sections, in widely extended order, with considerable distances between the sections, as we expected to meet a heavy flanking fire going across the valley. As it happened, however, only a dropping fire was opened on us, and we reached the farm unscathed, scattered through it, and stretched away up the hill beyond. A moment's glance sufficed to show that this hill was of no advantage to us, and so we pushed on round it to the left, down the cleft, across the road and up the other side. Nothing was to be seen from here but the gently rising hill, with some rocks on our left front, so we lay down and waited for further orders, as our original instructions to occupy the ridge had been completed.
On our right rear we could see the C.I.V.'s still coming over the ridge and disappearing over the rising ground to the right, and, from their movements, we could judge that they were coming under a hot fire as they crossed the heights and came out on the open ground. From what we saw afterwards, this view appeared correct, as the enemy, failing to occupy the ridge itself, had retired to a strong position among rocks quite 1,500 yards to the right front, where, at his leisure and in perfect safety himself, he could slate our troops as they advanced over the open.
Hearing all this firing on our right, while in front of us was absolute peace and quietness, we became rather suspicious, and searched the ground in front with our glasses; but, as is usually the case, no signs of any enemy could be seen. The longer this stillness continued the more suspicious it appeared; and we advanced cautiously when, shortly afterwards, half of D company arrived with an order to move on and occupy the rocky ridge to our left front. Another company was coming to support us, and some guns were following: another Brigade was coming up in rear, so, apparently, a general advance was being made. Still full of suspicious feelings intensified by the stillness and inaction, we moved on, but deployed into a wider front, so as to occupy as much of the ridge as possible when we got there. The half of D company under Lieut. Ashworth was on the right, then came E company under Captain Aldridge, while F under Captain Gilbert was on the left: each being in column of half companies and well extended. There were about 80 or 100 yards between the two lines, which were now advancing over an open grassy plateau, that rose gently to our front, where frowned the black rocks, our objective.
Slowly we went on, and a few shots dropped over, coming, seemingly, from our right; later some more spirted up the dust at our feet, and we quickened our pace slightly as we approached the rocky fringe which was our destination. About 30 yards on our side of the edge, there was a fringe of loose rocks and boulders, and, as we reached the first of these and mounted the gradual slope which led upwards to the top, we were enabled to look over the summit of the rocks, and our heads thus became visible to the enemy beyond, who were evidently waiting for this. Suddenly there was the most terrific outburst of rifle fire from our front, and a perfect hailstorm of bullets rattled, whistled and shrieked over our heads; luckily we were still too low down, or else the Boers were just a moment too soon in delivering their fire, as but few men were touched: instantly the officers yelled to their men to get under cover, and down all hands dropped into perfect safety. Then up we crept on hands and knees to the top, which was fringed with enormous rocks, furnishing the most excellent cover: and through the interstices of these we could open fire on the enemy; not that we actually saw any enemy (during the whole of that eventful day I did not see one single Boer), but we found out where they were. In front of us, and on the other side of a deep valley covered with rocks, was another rocky ridge, exactly similar to that upon which we were lying; and from this the enemy's bullets were still shrieking and whistling over our heads, fired, doubtless, from chinks and crevices between rocks similar to those we were now using.
About 800 yards was the range, and we pushed up every rifle into the firing line, made head cover for ourselves, and kept up a furious fire for some little time. The second line coming up behind us, composed of the rear half companies, had some casualties, Lieut. Morphett being shot in the thigh, and one or two of the men being wounded. Private Bowles of F company was shot on the foot, through boot and all, by a dropping bullet; he was much astonished and spun round and round several times.
Soon afterwards B and C companies, under Major Panton and Capt. Wroughton, came up to reinforce us, and they also were spread out behind rocks and told to keep up a continual fire. Probably owing to the fact that they could see nothing, the enemy gradually reduced their rifle fire until it almost ceased; but they now opened on us with a couple of pom-poms, fortunately for us not beginning until after we had reached the rocks and had established ourselves under cover. Almost at the same time, a heavy shell fire was commenced at us, but soon discontinued, as we afforded the enemy's gunners no object to shoot at. This shell fire was from our left front; we could not locate the gun, but wherever it was, it remained there, and in action, all the afternoon, although we were not afterwards troubled by it. The pom-poms came from the far right, where we could just distinguish the rocky tops of some elevated ground, and had they been closer would no doubt have done considerable damage, as they were quite on our right flank.
As though all this shell and rifle and pom-pom fire was not enough, we were now treated to a shell from the rear, which struck close to a man of B company and covered him with dust and dirt. Taking a man with me, I ran down into a safe spot, and we both waved our helmets vigorously for some minutes, when apparently we were observed from the battery which was firing at us, as no more shells came over our way.
The intensity of our firing had now somewhat dropped, as had that of the enemy, neither of us giving the other much to fire at; but the Boers were very watchful, and you could not look over your rock without one or two shots whizzing past immediately.
There was nothing more to be done but to sit and wait; it was impossible to advance further, even if we had had orders to do so.
About five o'clock there was a tremendous outburst of firing, but not all in our direction; and then we saw, to our left rear, a battalion of Guards, (Coldstreamers they were) coming up towards the rocks. They went through precisely the same experience as we had, and after a while commenced company volleys at the opposite side of the ravine, where the Boers were concealed, and continued for some time to pour in consistent volley firing. Meantime the Boer fire dropped to almost nothing, but every now and then, whenever there was a longer interval than usual between the volleys of the Guards, the rattle and whizz of the Mausers developed suddenly into a furious hailstorm, and as quickly died away again, showing that the Boers had some system of control of fire.
General Bruce Hamilton came up to where I was and had a look at the position, and I pointed out to him the direction from which the pom-pom fire had come; he looked at the hills through his telescope, and said he saw some of the Boers' horses collected at the base of a rock, and would send a gun up to us to have a shot at them. The gun came up shortly afterwards, but it was then too late to see any distance, and the shells fell short.
All the afternoon, a most interesting artillery duel had been going on between the 82nd Battery and the enemy's gun to which I have alluded, as being in position to our left front: our battery came into action near the cleft in the hill through which the road past Botha's Farm runs, and for some hours shelled the Boer position on all sides. The Boers answered the fire pluckily, and shelled the battery consistently for some time: we had a good view of the whole action, and it seemed marvellous that our guns could be worked at all in the face of the clouds of shrapnel which were hurtling through the air, all round the battery; but although they lost heavily in men and horses, they kept their guns going until it was too dark to see any longer.
Just as it was getting dusk, orders were received to withdraw from the position after dark, but to leave three companies on picket, and to send the remainder to the camp, which was being formed at Botha's Farm, behind the hill. B, C and E companies were therefore left on picket, and F company and the half of D returned to camp.
The remainder of the battalion had stayed in reserve behind the hill near the farm, G company being in advance somewhat and on the left of the 82nd Battery, and the others behind the hill, near the Farm.
Sad to relate, Captain Maguire was shot through the head whilst ascending the hill near the farm: he was not even in sight of the enemy, and must have been killed by a dropping bullet fired at extreme range. Poor Maguire, always so cheery and full of spirits; it was his first and only action, and he was the only man of ours killed in the two days fighting.
Lord Roberts wired to the War Office on the 12th of June as follows:
"After surrendering the city (Pretoria) Botha retired to a place about 15 miles east on the Middleburg road: he had a small force at first, but during the last few days the numbers increased, and his being so near the town kept up excitement in the country, prevented burghers from laying down their arms, and interfered with the collection of supplies.
"It became necessary to attack them. This I did yesterday.
"He held a very strong position (practically unassailable in front) which enabled him to place the main portion of his troops on his flanks, which he knew from former experience were his vulnerable parts.
"I sent French, with Porter's and Dickson's Cavalry Brigades and Hutton's Mounted Infantry round by our left: Ian Hamilton with Broadwood's and Gordon's Cavalry Brigades, Ridley's Mounted Infantry, and Bruce Hamilton's Infantry Brigade round by our right.
"Both columns met with great opposition, but about three in the afternoon I saw two of Hamilton's Infantry battalions advancing to what appeared to be the key of the enemy's defence on their left flank. This was almost gained before dark and I ordered the force to bivouac on the ground they had won."
 Our Casualties on the 12th of June were:--
KILLED. Captain C. Maguire.
WOUNDED. 2nd Lieut. G. Morphett. Cr. Sergeant F. Akehurst, B Company. Lce. Corporal A. Tester, G (died of wounds) Private R. Davis, G Co. W. Miller, D Co. C. Divall, F Co. J. Bowles, F Co. A. Dennett, F Co. F. Needham, B Co. F. Guntley, D Co. G. Wadham, Vol. Co.