Our chief concern was whether we, as novices, would bear ourselves well in our first engagement. Speaking to an old campaigner on the subject, he said—
"Tell me candidly, how do you feel?"
"Well, rather nervous."
"Ah! Now, I can tell you a man who feels nervous before a fight is all right, because he has some idea of what he is going to meet. It is the reckless recruit that often proves a coward. He fancies it a mere bagatelle, and finds out his mistake too late."
This rather encouraged us, for, to tell the truth, we felt anything but reckless.
One evening about twenty of us were sent off to keep watch in a Kafir kraal near the town. In one of the huts we found a Kafir lying sick, and too weak to rise. He told us the former outpost had always brought him something to eat, but now they had not come for some days, and he had begun to think himself doomed to die of starvation, or, worse still, of thirst. We soon made up a collection of biscuits and cold tea, and I am happy to say that henceforth the poor creature's wants were daily supplied.
A rather peculiar adventure befell us here a few days later. The sun had already set when we reached the spot where we were to stand guard during the night. We dismounted, and two men went forward on foot to reconnoitre. After a while they returned with the startling news that the enemy was approaching in force. They were sent forward again to make sure, and again returned, saying there could be no doubt about the matter.
"We heard the rumble of an approaching train, the march of cavalry, and saw the glint of arms between the trees!"
This was definite enough. A man was instantly despatched to alarm the main laager, while the rest of us followed leisurely. We were about half-way back when the messenger returned with an additional twenty-five men and an order that we were instantly to return to our post; if in possession of the enemy, to retake and hold it until relieved.
A very tall order, and more than one man uttered the belief that discretion was the better part of valour, and that there was no humour in attacking numberless Britons with fifty men. We braced up our nerves, however, retraced our steps, and presently reached the vicinity of the kraal. Two men crept up close and came back to say the place was full of English. Leaving the horses in charge of a few men, we crept forward and surrounded the kraal. Each sought a suitable shelter and laid himself down to await the dawn. It was now about midnight. The next four hours passed very slowly, lying there in the cold and with the expectation of a desperate struggle in the morning. We thought how brave we were, and how sorry our general would be when he heard how we had all been shot down to a man, and how in after years this night attack of ours would rank with the charge of the Light Brigade. We hoped Chamberlain would die soon after us, so that we could meet his soul in the great Beyond and drag it through a sieve.
What was our surprise to find when it grew light that there had never been an Englishman near! The whole thing from beginning to end was only another false alarm, and all our valour had been wasted.
This kind of alarm was rather frequent at the time. A burgher woke up one night to find himself being roughly shaken and someone shouting in his ear—
"What are you doing? Get up, quick! Don't you hear the alarm?"
"Yes, another false one, I daresay," turning over for another nap. Happening to open his eyes, he became aware for the first time that he was speaking to no one less than General Joubert himself!
The poor fellow did not argue the point any further, but forthwith fled into the night, glad to get off at that price.
One morning two of us were returning from our usual swim when suddenly we saw the whole camp a beehive of commotion, burghers running to and fro, saddling their horses, shouting at each other, and generally behaving with a great lack of decorum—like madmen, in fact, or members of the Stock Exchange. Hastening on, we heard that the enemy were coming out to attack us. We hastily seized our nags, and in five minutes were on top of the nearest hill between ourselves and the enemy, who could be seen approaching three thousand yards away. We formed ourselves into groups, and each group packed itself a low wall of the loose stones lying about.
One German, armed with a Martini-Henry, found himself shunned by all his comrades on account of his cartridges not containing smokeless powder, and was obliged to entrench himself on his own at some distance from the rest. The poor fellow was the butt of all the primitive humourists from the backwoods, and was assured with much solemnity that his rifle would draw all the British fire in his direction, and that he was as good as dead already. Thorny is the path of glory!
The British guns in Ladysmith opened fire as their cavalry advanced, the shells falling a few hundred yards to our right, on a hill whence our cannon had lately been removed.
When within two thousand yards the enemy suddenly wheeled to the left and were quickly out of sight between the hills. They found the Pretoria men there, and came back helter-skelter to the accompaniment of rapid rifle firing. First one saddle and then another was emptied as they raced across from right to left, making for a low scrub-covered kopje.
In this kopje a party of our men were concealed. With keen interest we watched the scene, waiting to see the enemy caught in the trap. Then a volley burst from the brush. Like a flash the horsemen wheeled and raced back into Ladysmith. The volley had been fired too soon.
A few mornings later we heard that during the night something very serious had taken place on Lombard's Kop. Being a sort of free lance, I immediately saddled my pony and rode in that direction. Presently I met two Boers on horseback.
"Morning, cousins." (Cousin is a title of courtesy used in addressing one's equal in age. Elder men are called "uncle.")
"Morning, cousin. Of what people may cousin be?"
"Of the telegraph service. And cousins?"
"Of the artillery."
"Something happened up there last night?"
"Yes. The English came and blew up our Long Tom!"
"How was that possible?"
"We can think what we like. Why was the burgher guard absent? It is shameful!"
We returned to camp together. The news had now been made public, and formed the one theme of discussion. Much credit was given the enemy for their audacity, but there was a strong suspicion that treachery had been at work. The ensuing court-martial resulted in two officers being suspended from duty only, although there were many trees about.
A few days later I went to see my brother, who was stationed on Pepworth Hill, some six miles to our right. He belonged to the Artillery Cadets, who at the beginning of the war had been distributed amongst the various guns in order to give them practical experience. Of the four that were attached to this gun two had already been wounded. It was glorious to see these lads of fifteen and sixteen daily withstanding the onslaught of the mighty naval guns. The rocks around their howitzer were torn by lyddite, and the ground strewn with shrapnel bullets.
"The British say we are trained German gunners. Quite a compliment to Germany!" said one youngster laughingly.
"And I," said another, inflating his chest, "am a French or Russian expert! Dear me, how we must have surprised them!"
They showed me how they crushed their coffee by beating it on a flat stone. Their staple food was bully beef and hard biscuits.
"If only we had some cigarettes," they said, "how gay we should be! Last week we got some sugar, enough for two days; we are so sick of black, bitter coffee!"
A severe thunderstorm now broke overhead, and as I had to go on duty that night I took leave of my friends. They had no tents, and had to find the best shelter they could under tarpaulins stretched between the rocks.
Riding along, I soon found my raincoat soaked through. The water began to rush along the path, and the loud, incessant pealing of the thunder and the rapidly succeeding and fearfully vivid lightning flashes so terrified my horse that it refused to move a step. Dismounting, I led the animal through the blinding rain for upwards of an hour, when I reached camp, to find the outpost already gone. I took off my streaming garments, and turned into my warm bed. At midnight the flap of the tent was opened, and I was ordered to turn out and stand guard. Our effects were still at Volksrust. Drawing on a soaking wet pair of heavy corduroy breeches in the middle of the night is one of the least delicious experiences possible, as I found to my cost, to say nothing of sitting in them on an antheap for a couple of hours with a chilly rain falling.
In the morning came the news that the enemy had again surprised and blown up one of our guns—none other than the howitzer visited by me the previous evening. Presently the young cadets themselves came riding into camp, bringing with them pieces of guncotton, and showing by the state of their ragged uniforms the hand-to-hand nature of the struggle that had taken place.
One of them said in answer to my inquiries—
"We heard someone climbing the hill in the night, and challenged. It was the British. They shouted 'Rule Britannia!' and rushed up to the top. We fired into them. We were too few. By sheer weight of numbers they forced us aside. One of the artillerymen was dragged by the leg from his sleeping-place. He shook himself free, and bolted. The soldiers formed a square round the gun, charged it with guncotton, shouted 'Stand back!' and the next moment our gun was crashing through the sky. It all happened in a moment. Then the enemy retired, followed by some burghers, who had by this time arrived from the laager at the back of the hill. The Pretoria commando was also waiting for them, and intercepting their retreat, made them pay dearly enough for their exploit."