The fact that so many of our Generals have been struck by bullets during the campaign would seem to corroborate what I have heard on good authority, viz., that some of the best shots in the Transvaal forces have been told off for long range shooting, and the picking off of our leaders. One of these fancy shots—a German—was captured in Natal and told an officer that he was glad to be a prisoner, as he heartily disliked the task imposed upon him. Some little distance north of the Modder bridge is a small white house. Within this was found a Boer lying on a table stone-dead, with a shrapnel bullet in his skull. His Mauser, still clutched in his stiffened hands, lay on a tripod rest in front of him and the muzzle pointed through a vertical slit made in the masonry of the cottage. Every house in the neighbourhood was more or less injured by shrapnel, and one of them was the scene of a sanguinary conflict which was utterly misrepresented by one of the Cape papers. The misrepresentation was to the effect that at the battle of Modder River the house in question was occupied by a number of Boer wounded from Belmont and Graspan in charge of several attendants. It was alleged that two of the attendants deliberately fired upon our troops, who forthwith entered the house and bayoneted every occupant, wounded and unwounded alike, the bodies being afterwards weighted, with stones and thrown into the river. This terrible story spread like wildfire through the Colony, and Lord Methuen despatched an official denial of the alleged circumstances to Capetown. The Boer General never, as far as I am aware, brought any such charge against our troops, but as it undoubtedly gained considerable credence in the Colony it is perhaps worth while to mention the real facts of the case. The house in question was occupied as an outpost by thirty-six Boers, who fired upon some companies of British troops. About a dozen of our men, chiefly Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders with a lieutenant of the Fifth Fusiliers—for an extraordinary intermingling of various units took place in this engagement—rushed the house. Two of the Highlanders were shot down but the rest took a speedy revenge. The thirty-six Boers clubbed their rifles and fought pluckily, but they were crowded together and could do little against our bayonets. Every man of the thirty-six perished. "I didn't like to see it, sir," said one of the Highlanders to me. This is, of course, a very different story from the disgraceful tale alluded to above. None of the Boers in the house were wounded before our men appeared on the scene, and it is clear that the Boer corpses in the river, with stones tied to their ankles, were put there by their own comrades.
Fair-minded and thoughtful men who have followed the events of the present campaign must long ago have come to the conclusion that non-official news must frequently be received with great caution. Before the war began misrepresentation was rife on both sides, and it has continued ever since. Mr. Winston Churchill may well call South Africa a "land of lies". Various slanders against ourselves have emanated to some extent from the Dutch papers in Cape Colony and the Transvaal, but in a much fuller and more substantial form from the Continental papers, notably the Parisian Press. On the other hand, our own journalists have not been altogether free from this taint. Let us take one or two concrete instances, e.g., violation of the white flag, firing on ambulances, the use of "explosive" bullets, looting. Just after the first reverse at the Tugela, a correspondent wired home that the Boers were "shooting horses and violating all the usages of civilised warfare". A man who would write such tomfoolery about horses ought to be kept in Fleet Street, and not sent out as a war correspondent; and as to his sweeping accusations in general, it is worth noticing that he was publicly and severely rebuked by Sir Redvers Buller, who denied his statements, and said that it was dishonourable to malign our brave opponents in this fashion.
As to the vexata quaestio of the white flag, it seems clear that in some instances the Boers have used this symbol of surrender in an absolutely unjustifiable way. Such a misusage of the flag occurred, for example, at Belmont.[ Since these lines were written Lord Roberts has personally testified to the misuse of the white flag in the Paardeberg fighting.] But, as a Boer prisoner said to me, there are blackguards in every army, and it is utterly unfair to represent the whole Boer army as composed of these treacherous scoundrels—who, by the way, in almost every instance have paid the penalty of their treachery with their lives. Moreover, a white flag—which is sometimes merely a handkerchief tied to a rifle—may, in a comparatively undisciplined force like that of our opponents, be easily raised by a combatant on one side of a kopje, without being ordered or being noticed by his officer or the bulk of his comrades. How easily this may happen can be seen from what occurred amongst our own men at Nicholson's Nek. Here the white flag was raised, according to the published letter of an officer present, by a subaltern, without the knowledge and against the wishes of the officer in command. The officer who raised the flag may quite well—we do not know the circumstances accurately—have wished to save the lives of the men immediately round him, or may have been unable to see what was happening elsewhere on the kopje, and so have imagined that he and his men alone were left.
Something very similar to this appears to have happened at Dundee. A body of Boers standing together raised a white flag when our men approached and were duly taken prisoners, but the rest of their commando were, according to Boer accounts, already engaged in retreating with their guns, and, being either unaware of this unauthorised surrender or completely ignoring it, continued their flight.
I have already spoken of the risks incurred by stretcher-bearers and ambulance waggons which approach close to the firing line. Wounded men have told me again and again that the Boers at Magersfontein did not fire wilfully on our ambulance waggons, except when our troops got behind them in their retreat. Moreover, excitable people in England, who greedily swallow any story about such alleged occurrences, have probably the vaguest idea of what a modern battle-field looks like, and of the enormous area now covered by military operations. It may be extremely difficult to see a small white or Red Cross flag a long way off. At Ladysmith, e.g., one of our guns put a shell clean through a Boer ambulance, and Sir George White, of course, at once sent an apology for the mistake. If mistakes occur on one side they may occur on the other. Reuter's agent at Frere Camp reports on 4th December:—
"After the evacuation of Dundee the Boers shelled the hospital and the ambulance until the white flag was hoisted, when their firing ceased. Captain Milner rode with one orderly into the Boer camp with a flag of truce, and was told that the Boers could not see the Red Cross flag. This statement he verified by personal observation."
As to the use of "explosive" bullets, which makes the "man in the street" so indignant, it is worth mentioning that, as far as I am aware, not a single instance of the employment of such a missile came under the notice of our medical staff with Lord Methuen's column. I do not for one instant deny that occasionally such bullets may have been fired at our troops, but it is clear that the utmost confusion prevails about the nature of these projectiles. The Geneva Convention prohibits the use of explosive bullets, i.e., hollow bullets charged with an explosive which is fired by a detonating cap on coming in contact with a resisting surface. Now it is almost impossible to render a Mauser bullet "explosive," owing to its extreme slenderness, so that any explosive bullets which may have been used by the enemy must have come from sporting rifles, which are—as all evidence goes to show—extremely rare in their commandos. Expansive bullets are made by cutting off the rounded tip of the bullet, scooping out its point, constructing its "nose" of some softer metal, or simply making transverse cuts across the end. These missiles are not prohibited by the Geneva Convention: nevertheless their employment against white men is altogether unnecessary and reprehensible.
As to looting, we must not forget that all commandeering of goods on the part of the enemy has been so described. But, of course, it is perfectly legitimate according to the usage of modern warfare to seize any property necessary for an army provided receipts are duly handed over to the persons from whom the goods are obtained. The Germans invariably acted in this way during the Franco-Prussian war, and no historian has ever described them as "savages" for this reason. Of course the wanton destruction of property which appears to have been perpetrated by the Boers in Natal is absolutely indefensible.
If any one on reading the above thinks the writer "unpatriotic" he can only say that many British soldiers serving their Queen and country are "unpatriotic" in the same way. I hold no brief for the Boers, and I feel sure that here and there one may find an unmitigated scoundrel in their ranks who would fire on white flags, loot houses and use explosive bullets. On the other hand wounded and captured soldiers have repeatedly testified to the great kindness shown them by the enemy. In short, I have invariably found soldiers more generous and fair towards the enemy, and less disposed to blackguard them recklessly and unjustly, than newspaper writers and readers. Men who have faced the Boers have learnt to respect their courage and devotion, and I feel sure that British officers and soldiers deprecate much of the atrocity talk anent foemen so worthy of their steel, and however little they may sympathise with some portions of Dean Kitchin's sermon, they would at any rate desire to support his wish that the "quarrel should be raised to the level of a gentlemen's quarrel".[ Cf. The River War, by Winston Spencer Churchill, vol. ii., p. 394. "It is the habit of the boa-constrictor to besmear the body of its victim with a foul slime before he devours it; and there are many people in England, and perhaps elsewhere, who seem to be unable to contemplate military operations for clear political objects, unless they can cajole themselves into the belief that the enemy is utterly and hopelessly vile."] Quite recently Lord Methuen spoke like an honourable and chivalrous British soldier when he declared that he "never wished to meet a braver general than Cronje and had never served in a war where less vindictive feelings existed between the two opposing armies than in this."
One more word on a kindred topic and we will leave criticism alone! The tone adopted by some sections of the Colonial and even British Press with respect to the religious feeling of the Boers is very painful. Some correspondents have described with evident glee how Boer prayer-meetings have been broken up by Lyddite shells. I feel sure that no British General would think for a moment of deliberately shelling any body of the enemy assembled for prayer, and the vulgarity and wickedness of such paragraphs would certainly not commend itself to the best sentiment of the British army. Again and again the Boers are described in the Press as "canting hypocrites" or their thanksgivings to God as "sanctimonious". What right have we as Christians to bring such wholesale charges against our Christian enemies? Several thousand burghers advanced from Jacobsdal to reinforce Cronje, and as it marched the entire force sang the Old Hundredth in unison. There is something splendid and majestic in such a spectacle as this. Let us as Englishmen fight our best against these men and defeat them thoroughly, but do not let us sneer at their religious enthusiasm!
On December 10th, as we were standing on a siding at De Aar, a telegram, arrived ordering us to leave for Modder River in the morning. We were delighted at the prospect of getting rid of our enforced inaction at De Aar. The air was full of rumours about an impending attack on Cronje's position, and we fully expected to be in time for the fight and probably to be employed as stretcher-bearers during the battle. Alas! our hopes were all in vain. Next day, some miles below Modder River, our engine with its tender suddenly left the metals. The stoker jumped off, but the engine fortunately kept on the top of the embankment and nobody was hurt. We none of us knew how or why the accident had occurred, but one of the officials suspected very strongly that the rails had been tampered with.
At any rate, there we were within a few miles of a big fight, off the metals and quite helpless! We were all perfectly wild with vexation and disappointment. But up flew a wire to Modder River for a gang of sappers with screwjacks. Pending the arrival of their assistance I climbed up to the top of a neighbouring kopje with a lot of Tasmanians. From this point the flashes of the guns above Modder River were visible, and the dull boom of Lyddite was borne to our ears. Methuen's artillery was still doing its best to avenge or retrieve the disaster of the early morning. The sappers at length arrived. We all helped—pushing and digging and lifting—and at length after several hours' delay steamed off to Modder River, too late for anything, except to wait for the morning and the wounded. We knew by this time that at 3:30 that morning the Highland Brigade had made a frontal attack on the Magersfontein lines and had been repulsed with terrible loss. The accounts which were vaguely given of the disaster were frightful, but accurate details were still lacking. Yes, here we were within four miles of the nearest point of Cronje's lines and we did not know half as much about the fight as people in Pall Mall 7000 miles away!
On 12th of December I woke at four. The sun was just beginning to rise and the raw chill of the night had not yet left the air. In the grey light a long string of ambulance waggons was moving slowly towards the camp from the battle-field. Parallel to the line of waggons a column of infantry was marching northwards, perhaps to reinforce some of our outlying trenches against a possible Boer attack. I shall long remember the sight—the column of dead and wounded coming in, the living column going out, and scarcely a sound to break the silence.
The wards of the train were all ready for the wounded, so I went off with a couple of buckets to replenish our water supply. Wounded men are generally troubled with thirst, and the washing of their hands and faces always refreshes them greatly. I found the station tap, however, guarded by a sentry; no water was to be drawn for the use of the troops, as the pipes—so it was said—came from Modder River, which was contaminated by the Boer corpses.
We were soon busy with the wounded Highlanders and well within an hour we had safely placed some 120 men in our bunks, and some on the floor. I am afraid the poor soldiers often suffered agony when they were lifted in or rolled from the stretchers on to the bunks. It was sometimes impossible to avoid hurting a man with, say, a shattered thigh-bone and a broken arm in thus changing his position. We however did our best and lifted them with the utmost care and gentleness, but they often, poor fellows, groaned and cried out in their cruel pain.
At 6 P.M. we saw the funeral of sixty-three Highlanders—all buried in one long trench close to the line. No shots were fired over the vast grave, but tears rolled down many a bronzed cheek and the bagpipes played a wild lament. Surely there is no music like this for the burial of young and gallant men. The notes seem to express an almost frenzied access of human sorrow!
Soon after this my old Sudan acquaintance, Frederick Villiers, passed through the train. He did not recognise me in my uniform and I did not make myself known to him as he was with an officer and I was only an orderly. I wonder if he remembers that dreadful night, 31st August, 1898, when we lay side by side in the desert at Sururab, soaked to the skin from a tropical downpour, and, to make his misery complete, he was stung in the neck by a large scorpion.
We ran down to Orange River with our first load of wounded men, and just as we were crossing the sappers' pontoon bridge over the Modder a trolly or small waggon broke loose and rushing down the incline in front met our engine and was broken into matchwood. Most of our cases on this first run were "severe" or "dangerous". Some of the men had no less than three bullet wounds, and several were still living whose heads had been pierced by bullets. During a former journey, after Belmont, poor —— of the Guards lived for several days with a bullet through his brain; he was apparently unconscious or semi-conscious and struggled so desperately to remove the bandages from his head that it took three orderlies to hold him down. When he died the wounded soldier next him burst into tears.
Amongst some cases peculiarly interesting from a medical point of view was that of a Highlander who had three of his fingers shot off with the result that his arm and side were paralysed; in another case a bullet tore its way through and across the crown of a soldier's head and caused paralysis of the opposite side of the body. Another man had, so it was said, been hit on the shoulder; the bullet passed right through his body piercing his lungs and intestines and coming out at the thigh. Yet, strange to say, the poor fellow was in excellent spirits and complained only of slight pain in the abdomen.
There was one death at Magersfontein which seemed especially painful to ourselves. It was that of a young officer in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who, after the fight on the Modder, came into our train and had a kindly word for every one of his wounded men; he walked along the wards shaking hands with them and giving them little money presents as he passed. His voice was full of sympathy, and at length he broke down utterly in his compassion for some of their terrible wounds. His tears did him credit, and we heard with genuine sorrow that he had fallen at Magersfontein. So good a man was indeed worthy of a longer life and a kindlier fate.
Almost all the wounds inflicted by the Mauser bullets seemed to be quite clean and healthy, with no signs of suppuration. It has been suggested that the satisfactory condition of such wounds is partly due to a species of cauterisation produced by the heat of the bullet. But I hardly think this can be so, for it is extremely doubtful if a bullet ever gets hot enough to cauterise flesh. I once picked up a spent Martini bullet which dropped within a yard or two of where I was standing; it was quite warm but not nearly hot enough to hurt my bare hand. A Mauser bullet fired at a fairly close range, say, 500 yards, travels at such a tremendous velocity that it generally splinters any bone it meets; on the other hand at long ranges—1,000 yards and upwards—the bullet frequently bores a clean little hole through the opposing bone and thus saves the surgeon a great deal of trouble.
The wounds from shell fire were not numerous in our wards. It seems likely that if a one-pounder shell from the Maxim-Nordenfeldt hits a man it is pretty sure to kill him. Some of the wounded men told me how terrible it was to hear the cries of a comrade ripped to pieces by this devilish missile.
The condition of the Highlanders' legs was terrible. Many of the poor fellows lay in the open for hours—some of them from 4 A.M. to 8 P.M.—and the back of their legs was, almost without exception, covered with blisters and large burns from the scorching sun. Very many of those who had escaped bullet wounds could not, I should think, have marched ten miles to save their lives. The Highland Light Infantry wore trousers and their legs were all right. How much longer are we going to clothe our Highland regiments in kilts on active service? Every man I spoke to was dead against their use in a subtropical campaign like the present one. Besides, even as it is, our men have to put up with a compromise in the matter of kilts which makes their retention almost ridiculous, i.e., in order to screen his gay attire from the keen eyes behind the Mauser barrels every Highlander wears over the tartan a dingy apron of khaki. The war pictures we occasionally see in illustrated papers of Scotch regiments charging with flying sporrans are probably drawn in England. Even when the apron is used, the khaki jacket, the tartan kilt and the white legs offer a good mark when the wearer is lying on the ground. At Omdurman I stood with the Seaforths and Camerons in the firing line and I noticed that they appeared to lose more than any other battalion.
On arriving at Orange River we carried our load of wounded to the base hospital. I wish some of those well-meaning enthusiasts in Trafalgar Square who clamoured for war could have viewed the interior of these hospital tents and seen the poor twisted forms lying on the ground in every direction. What a stupid and brutal thing war is! Certainly the alleged "bringing out of our nobler qualities" is dearly purchased! If a superior national type is the outcome of all this death and pain and misery, War, like Nature, seems at any rate utterly "careless of the single life"!
The battle of Magersfontein has been frequently described in the Press and the main outlines of the fight are already well known to the public. The Highland Brigade, consisting of the Black Watch, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Seaforths and Highland Light Infantry, had dinner on Sunday at 12. They then marched from 2 to 7.30 P.M., when they bivouacked. They advanced again at 11 P.M. in quarter column through the darkness, using ropes to keep the direction and formation intact. At 3.30 the order to extend had just been given when a murderous fire was suddenly poured into the Brigade from the first line of Boer trenches at the foot of a large kopje. Our men had already seen two red lanterns burning at either extremity of this entrenched position. All at once the lamp on the left of the line was extinguished, and this seemed to be the signal for the Boer riflemen to commence fire. The light was so bad—in fact there was scarcely any light at all—that it was impossible to see the foresight of a rifle clearly. How were the Boers able to discern our approaching columns? One very intelligent boy in the Black Watch told me that he thought the "wild-fire"—the summer lightning which plays over the veldt—showed up the approaching troops. Others who were present stated that the Kimberley flash-light did the mischief, and a sergeant who marched in the rear of the brigade told me that he could see the whole line of helmets in front of him illumined by these electric flashes. Apart from this, it is quite possible that some treacherous signals from Dutchmen near Modder River camp may have apprised the Boers of our approach.
Be this as it may, the first volleys from the opposing trenches swept through the crowded ranks of the Black Watch with deadly effect. Great confusion ensued, our men could do little by way of retaliation, contradictory orders were given, and the Brigade, unable to hold its ground under the murderous fire, fell back. The fusilade was fearfully severe and what added to its severity was its unexpectedness. It is especially the case in war that the unexpected is terrible. This has been exemplified again and again. On one occasion during the siege of Paris a body of Zouaves had fought splendidly all day in a sortie under a hot fire from the Prussians. They were at length ordered to withdraw some distance into a hollow which would shield them effectually from the Prussian shells and bullets. The Zouaves ensconced themselves in this excellent bit of cover and after their exertions prepared to get a little rest. Suddenly, to their astonishment, a Prussian shell fell plump into the hollow, and although it hurt nobody the entire company leapt to their feet and never stopped until they found themselves within the ramparts of Paris. Yet these men had faced a deadly fire all day when they expected it.
No troops in the world could have done anything in face of the Magersfontein fire: some of the Highlanders, however, lay down and maintained their position actually within 200 yards of the Boer lines throughout the day. They had scarcely any cover, and if they showed themselves by any movement they were picked off by the enemy's sharp-shooters. Several of our wounded told me that they had seen one Boer, got up in the most sumptuous manner—polished jackboots, silk neck-cloth and cigar—strolling leisurely about outside the trenches and firing with extraordinary accuracy at the recumbent figures which dotted the ground before him.
As the Brigade fell back various units were, in the darkness inextricably mixed up, and our losses became more severe as the accuracy of the enemy's fire increased. The booming of our artillery and the rush of our shells upon the Boer trenches put fresh heart into our temporarily disheartened troops, and rallying lines were formed in various directions. Occasional rushes were made towards the almost invisible enemy over the slope already thickly dotted with the bodies of our dead and wounded, and at the close of the disastrous day several gallant Highlanders were found lying dead across the wire entanglements within 150 yards of the Boers, riddled with bullets. The 12th Lancers dismounted, and at one moment, advanced as infantry right up to the Boer trenches. Every one I spoke to expressed the warmest admiration for their coolness and pluck.
A sergeant in the Black Watch, when all the officers had apparently been struck down, cried out to the Highlanders near him: "Charge, men, and prepare to meet your God!" He rushed forward at the head of a few comrades and fell dead with a bullet through his brain within a yard or two of the trenches. There is something truly sublime in this man's devotion to his duty. Many and many an individual act of heroism was displayed during those awful moments in the semi-darkness when the enemy opened fire on our crowded battalions. British officers stood upright, utterly regardless of self, doing their best to rally the shaken troops, and then falling beneath the pitiless hail of bullets. Later on the hillside was littered with field-glasses.
Almost 1,000 yards from the line of kopjes three lines of wire had been placed, which were cut during our advance, and other entanglements were stretched just in front of the trenches. Several men in each company carried wire-cutters with them, but to stand up and snip through lines of barbed wire when the Mauser bullets and the deadly shells of the Pom-Pom gun are tearing up the soil around is perilous work. Some of these entanglements had already been removed after the bombardment on Sunday night, for E Company of the Black Watch and a company of the Seaforths went forward about 7 P.M. in skirmishing order and pulled up the iron stakes and knocked over three parallel lines of barbed wire.
Some of the Highland Brigade very sensibly withdrew towards the right of the Boer position with the idea of outflanking and enfilading the enemy. They succeeded for some time and actually captured some prisoners, but were soon afterwards themselves enfiladed and compelled to retire. Eight men of the Seaforths, however, when the frontal attack failed, retired towards the left instead of the right and suddenly found themselves, to their dismay, well inside the enemy's trenches! The Boers took away their rifles but forgot their side-arms, whereupon one of the Highlanders drew his bayonet, leapt to his feet and stabbed the sentry who was guarding them in the neck. The whole eight then jumped over the earthwork and decamped, escaping unhurt through the bullets which followed them from the enraged burghers.