Something peculiar began to be observed about the British camp at Chieveley. The naval guns still flashed by day, the searchlight still signalled to Ladysmith of nights, the tents still glistened in the sun, but the soldiers, where were they?
Marching somewhere up the river. Buller meant to try his luck once more. More than one of our present leaders had in former days fought by Buller's side against the Zulus. They knew him tenacious, able; no mere theorist. It was here in Natal, under their eyes, that he had gained his Victoria Cross—the same priceless bit of bronze that young Roberts had just died to win; and they felt that to ward off his second blow would ask all our energy and cost many useful lives.
The commandoes on our side of the river were extended to keep pace with the enemy's movements on the other. The distance between the different laagers lengthened considerably, and a speedy and certain method of communication soon became a necessity. To obtain this use was made of the vibrator, an instrument so sensitive that the most faulty line will carry sufficient electricity to work it. Having received orders to accompany the construction party, I said good-bye to my comfortable quarters, and found myself in the veld once again.
While the two waggons loaded with wire, etc., went on by road we struck across country, myself on horseback, a vibrator strapped to the saddle, the others on foot. Half a dozen Kafirs accompanied us, carrying rolls of "cable," wire about the thickness of the lead in a pencil and covered with gutta percha. A wooden "saddle" holding one roll of wire was strapped on the back of one of the natives, one end of the wire joined up to the instrument in the office; the native marched forward, the wire unrolling as he went, and the other boys placing stones upon it here and there in order to prevent its being dragged about by cattle. In this manner we went forward, establishing an office at every laager on the way, with the result that every commando was always fully informed as to the situation of all the others, and the enemy's every movement immediately known to the entire forces, enabling reinforcements to be sent anywhere at any time.
This system was an easy one to learn, and it has been said that some of our generals became so fond of it that the slightest movement of the enemy was the signal for a request for reinforcements. This is, no doubt, a frivolous exaggeration.
The first day of laying the cable we had gone about fifteen miles, when communication with the office suddenly ceased. Telling the others to go on, I turned back and carefully tested the line, eventually finding the fault at sundown. Reporting my whereabouts to the office, I was ordered to follow the working party as rapidly as possible, the chief adding that it was especially desired to have communication the same night with the Standerton laager, where the others would have arrived by this time. I therefore pushed on, following the wire. It was pretty dark when I reached the foot of a mountain. Right across the cable led me—rather a difficult matter tracing it in the dark—but at last an open plain on the other side was reached; a few miles further I found one of our men stretched out in the grass by the side of the cable.
"Where's the Standerton laager?"
"This is where it was. Shifted yesterday; don't know where to. Others gone to find out. Got a blanket?"
I had not. We had no idea where the waggons were. We lay down to shiver, not to sleep, for the intense cold made the latter impossible and the former obligatory. In the middle of the night we moved round to the other side of the antheap, thinking it must be warmer there. But it wasn't.
At sunrise the others returned, saying that the Standerton laager had moved much higher up, and that the Johannesburg laager was the next on the list. They accordingly marched in that direction, laying the cable as they went, past precipices and over mountain gorges. I followed on, testing and repairing, very tedious work in the burning sun. Fortunately I was able to buy a little fresh milk from a native, which refreshed me immensely. The waggons were still missing, so we had very little food.
At midnight the cable led me up a high hill, so steep that the pony almost fell over backwards as I led him up the face of it. Right on the top lived an old native, who, hearing the barking of his dogs, rushed out armed with an assegai, ready to defend his eyrie against all comers. I persuaded him to take me straight to the Johannesburg laager, where a good night's rest made all right again.
The next morning communication was established with headquarters, and I had the pleasure of eating a decent breakfast with Ben Viljoen, then commandant, now general, whose acquaintance I had made during the Swaziland expedition.
A fiery politician and a reckless writer, his pet aversions were Hollanders and Englishmen, and it was hard to say which he detested the most. Brave and straightforward, he was most popular amongst his men, but the official, non-fighting, salary-pocketing element bore him no love. General in charge of these positions was kind-hearted, energetic Tobias Smuts, of Ermelo.
During the night Louis Botha arrived here, accompanied only by his aide and his secretary. He, Smuts, their staffs, all slept in one small tent on the hard ground, and with hardly room enough to turn round in. Truly our chiefs were anything but carpet knights!
For a couple of days my office was under a waggon, then my tent arrived, and soon everything was in full swing. One afternoon I was honoured by a visit from a Hollander Jew and Transvaal journalist, whose articles had more power to sting the Uitlanders than almost anything one could mention on the spur of the moment.
We drank tea together and discussed the probability of our camp being bombarded, standing, as it did, in full view of the hill whereon the British cannon had been dragged a few days before. He had just raised the cup to his lips when a well-known sound was heard—the shriek of an approaching shell. Nearer and louder it came, till finally—bang!—the shell burst not a hundred yards away. A young lineman, who had been listening with all his soul and ever wider stretching eyes, now gave an unearthly yell and almost sprang through the top of the tent, knocking over the unhappy journalist and sending the hot tea streaming down his neck. The youth's exit was somewhat unceremonious.
The office was hastily removed to the high bank of the adjacent stream. Whilst this operation was going on the instrument buzzed out a message ordering me to leave immediately for the Spion Kop office. I at once said au revoir, handing over to my assistant the charge of the office, river bank and all, as well as the task of dodging the shells, which continued to fall around.
Riding along the steep bank for about two hundred yards, I found a footpath leading down one side and up the other. No sooner had I started down this than I heard a loud explosion. It did not sound quite so near, but on gaining the opposite bank I saw floating over the spot just quitted by me a small cloud of smoke, showing that a shell had been fired at me with marvellous accuracy. Then a couple burst near the general's tent, and the laager was immediately shifted behind the hill.
I reached Spion Kop, took charge of the office, and was kept so busy that for a week there was no time to have a decent wash.
The hill next ours was daily bombarded with the utmost enthusiasm, shells falling there at the rate of fully sixty a minute, while we escaped with only an occasional bomb. Looking down upon the plain before us, we could see the British regiments drilling on the bank of the river, about two thousand yards away, probably to draw our fire, but in vain was the net spread.
The ground of operations was somewhat extensive. For some days the enemy's infantry had been harassing our right wing, attacking every day, and drawing a little nearer every night. Louis Botha was almost continually present at this point, only coming into camp now and then for a few hours' sleep.
One evening his secretary said to me, with genuine emotion, "It has all been in vain! Our men are worn out. They can do no more!"
He was a Hollander, and also a gentleman; that is to say, he was not one of those Hollanders who lived on the fat of the land, and then turned against us in our adversity; rather was he of the rarer stamp of Coster, who glorified his mother country by nobly dying for that of his adoption.
"Cheer up!" I replied. "There are other hills."
"To-morrow will tell," he said, as he bade me good-night.
And the morrow did. In the grey dawn two hatless and bootless young men came stumbling down into the laager.
"The British have taken the hill!"
Startled, we gazed at Spion Kop's top—only five hundred yards away, but invisible, covered by the thick mist as with a veil. The enemy were there, we knew it; they could not see us as yet, but the mist would soon clear away, and then....
Our guns were rapidly trained on the spot, our men placed in position, and we waited.
I ran into the tent to telegraph the news to Colenso. No reply to my hasty call. The wire is cut!
"Go at once," said the chief, "and repair the line."
As I rode off the mist cleared, and a few minutes later the fight had begun. The cable ran about a thousand yards behind our firing line, and as I went along, my eyes fixed on the wire, the noise of the battle sounded in my ears like the roar of a prairie fire. Jagged pieces of shell came whizzing past, shrieking like vampires in their hunt for human flesh.
Searching carefully for the fault, my progress was slow, and it was afternoon when the Johannesburg laager was reached. Here I found a despatch-rider, who said that reinforcements had arrived at Spion Kop early in the morning, that our men had immediately climbed the hill, and that, the issue being very, uncertain, we might have to retreat during the night.
The line was still interrupted, although I had repaired several faults. I accordingly rode back to Spion Kop early the next morning. When I entered the laager it was to find that all the waggons had already retreated, and the tents standing deserted. Not quite deserted, for in one of them half a dozen bodies were lying. The enemy had unexpectedly retired during the night, and the entire commando was now on the hill, gazing at the plentiful harvest reaped by our Nordenfeldts. Thither I also went.
British ambulance men were busy collecting corpses. It was a mournful sight; it seemed to me as if war really meant nothing else than butchering men like sheep, quietly, methodically, and without any pomp or circumstance.
"A sad sight!" I remarked to the British chaplain.
"They only did their duty," was his unfeeling reply. Duty! Is it any man's duty to kill and be killed without knowing why? For what did these poor Lancashire lads know or care about the merits of the war?
"What do you think the confounded English have had the cheek to do?" asked a friend. "You know they always keep our wounded as prisoners when they get the chance. Well, this morning their ambulance came here and coolly carted away all their wounded! Louis Botha says they might have asked permission first. I should have turned a Maxim on them!"
We went down to the laager, found the line in order, and wired the news of the victory to Pretoria. I had not been able to get into communication the day before because the chief had taken a hand in the fighting instead of attending to the instrument.
Believing that Warren would make another attempt, this time more to our right, we shifted the office a few miles in that direction and pitched our tent next to a farmhouse, which was being utilised as a hospital.