Go with the gunners if you want stirring scenes of modern war. You will not, as so often happens when one goes with an infantry regiment, spend a day lying on your belly in the scorching sun, while the air is vocal above you with the singing of bullets from an invisible foe, whose position is vaguely located on some quiet and deserted-looking kopje in front. Go with the gunners, and every time you go you will come back with an increased admiration for them. It is impossible to tell the result of rifle or even Maxim fire unless, as at Omdurman, the enemy stand up to be massacred; but with the guns you can at least see where the shells fall or the shrapnel burst. For this reason the Vickers-Maxim automatic—or pom-pom, as it was christened at Ladysmith—must be a most delightfully interesting weapon to the gunner who operates it. Each little shell on impact throws up a small fountain of smoke as it explodes, so that he sees at once if his fire is short or too high, and gets his range immediately; then he can follow cavalry about and tickle them up, or play around a patch of veldt where he knows the enemy are lying, just as a gardener would sprinkle with a watering-pot. It is a most demoralising weapon, but the explosion is so small that it does much less harm than would be expected.
Let us take a typical day with the gunners. Photographs or cinematographs are entirely unsatisfactory in giving any idea of the "movement" of a battery going into action. There is the rattle of the gun-carriages, like a running accompaniment of rifle fire; the jingle of the harness; the splendid, strenuous, willing pull of the horses straining against their collars. They know all about it, these bright-eyed beasts quivering with life and work, and want no whip or spur until the work of tugging over the broken ground under a sweltering sun staggers them under the strain.
There could not have been a more beautiful day than that of Elandslaagte for watching the gunners in action. Before the main part of the action was entered on, two batteries were ordered to reply to some fire coming from the left of our line of advance. They went forward at the gallop, bounding, jolting, and swaying over the uneven veldt, and, on a slight rise of ground showing out against the deep blue background of some hills, unlimbered and opened fire. A few horsemen were seen galloping over the ridge of a hill in front, and that was all. Then they limbered up and were ordered across to our right; a low but steep little embankment of the narrow-gauge railway was in front of them. It was a pretty sight to see them negotiating this obstacle—the jolting of the springless wheels up and down the stony sides and across the rails on top ought to have been enough to shake the teeth out of the men sitting on the limbers, and gripping hard to keep their seats. By the way, how loudly the nether part of a gunner's anatomy must sometimes cry out for a cushion!
No sooner had they got clear of this jump than the Boer guns opened and began to make excellent practice. How every gunner felt longing to reply and silence them! Bang, burst, or spinning with whizzing hops, the shells came dropping in rapid succession. The Boers had been careful to get the exact range the previous day, and were not now wasting time or ammunition. Our guns had to go up a sloping depression at right angles to the Boer fire before getting into a position for opening. Every instant was of value, as the Boer shells were now dropping amongst the Imperial Light Horse and the infantry, who were just beginning to deploy. Under whip and spur they galloped up the slope—Gad! it was a sight to see how these artillery horses pulled; there was no taxpayers' money wasted there. One drops down, and the sharpness with which he is replaced by one of the spare horses would have drawn ringing rounds of applause at an Islington tournament. They take up a position at the top of the rising ground, monopolising the attention of the Boer gunners as they unlimber.
The gunners jump from their seats sharp as sailors, unhook the limbers, leaving the guns pointed towards the enemy. Then the drivers trot off about fifteen yards, wheel round, and sit motionless on their horses, facing the fire. One cannot but admire the courage required to sit coolly like that with nothing to do but watch the enemy firing deliberately at them—see the discharge, and then await the arrival of the shell as it comes whirring and hurtling through the air. With what critical interest they must watch improvement in the enemy's shell-bowling! One was forcibly reminded of cricket bowling at Elandslaagte. Many of the shells did not burst, and those that were not full-pitched came in the manner of swift bowling along the rounded, almost flat-topped surface of the rising ground; and these gunners sat as steady as if they were the wickets just stuck in the ground, with never a duck of the head or a blink of the eye. The men working the guns are kept busy all the time, and have no time to think of or watch the enemy's shells; but the drivers have nothing to do but wait and watch. The horses, with still heaving foam-streaked sides, stand panting and tossing their heads. The Boers have got the position of our batteries accurately, as it must have been previously obvious that it was the one we would have taken up. Three of the gunners have already been badly hit; immediately after, with a terrific crash, a shell hits an ammunition-waggon fair. Those around hold their breath for a still greater explosion, but, wonderful to say, the ammunition does not explode. When the dust has cleared, however, the wheel of the waggon is found smashed to matchwood, and the vehicle lies helpless and useless on its side. But still steady as rocks sit the drivers facing the music. This is courage—the real article—and the market price of this kind of British pluck is one and twopence a day!
Three days later I was photographing these boys behind their guns on the hill at Rietfontein, standing just as quietly under a hot rifle fire at 1200 yards' range, which the enemy kept up persistently, although we had silenced their guns and actually set fire to a long line of grass on the hill from which they were firing. An innocent, harmless-looking hill it seemed, with not a Boer visible on it, yet the bright summer air simply sang with the notes of Mauser bullets—clear and musical notes when they pass high overhead, but with a sharp and bitter ping when they pass close.
But the best sight of all is to see our gunners going out of action. They go in at a gallop, and retire at a walk. There is something so delightfully contemptuous of the enemy's marksmanship in this. One day outside Ladysmith was typical. A couple of batteries went out with some cavalry for a small reconnaissance in force, located the Boer gun, and quickly drove the gunners to cover. The vultures had gathered as usual at the sound of their dinner-gong, but there was no fight, and soon the guns limbered up, and turned back across the plain. Immediately the Boer gunners were back at their gun, and, serving it with wonderful rapidity, sent shell after shell at our retiring batteries. The first was just short, then the two next went over; but on they went quietly, never breaking out of the walk. Then a shell fell between a gun and a limber, and did not burst. The great vultures wheeled and circled lower, waving their shadows below them on the parched plain; but there was no dinner for them that day—not even a horse was hit. And so always, when these field guns stop barking and limber up, it reminds one of pulling a dog out of a fight by the tail as they are dragged slowly, as if reluctantly, away; while the drivers don't bother to look round, and don't look a bit like heroes full of courage at the magnificent price of one and twopence a day.
Rattle of iron on stones—clear, sharp words of command—clink of breech action—coldness of iron will warming the steel throat that voices its thoughts—hard, scientific, inhumanly mechanical; yet there is a subtle, attractive feeling that draws together the living elements that serve the gun. I barely escaped being knocked down one day by an artillery horse galloping furiously over the veldt. He had got badly torn by a shell; wild with the pain, he raced around until exhausted, and then, managing to stagger up to a gun, fell dead, with his head against the trail.