Johannesburg: June 1.
On the 24th of May, Ian Hamilton's force, marching west from Heilbron, struck the railway and joined Lord Roberts's main column. The long marches, unbroken by a day's rest, the short rations to which the troops had been restricted, and the increasing exhaustion of horses and transport animals seemed to demand a halt. But a more imperious voice cried 'Forward!' and at daylight the travel-stained brigades set forth, boots worn to tatters, gun horses dying at the wheel, and convoys struggling after in vain pursuit--'Forward to the Vaal.'
And now the Army of the Right Flank became the Army of the Left; for Hamilton was directed to move across the railway line and march on the drift of the river near Boschbank. Thus, for the first time it was possible to see the greater part of the invading force at once.
French, indeed, was already at Parys, but the Seventh and Eleventh Divisions, the Lancer brigade, the corps troops, the heavy artillery, and Hamilton's four brigades were all spread about the spacious plain, and made a strange picture; long brown columns of Infantry, black squares of batteries, sprays of Cavalry flung out far to the front and flanks, 30,000 fighting men together, behind them interminable streams of waggons, and, in their midst, like the pillar of cloud that led the hosts of Israel, the war balloon, full blown, on its travelling car.
We crossed the Vaal on the 26th prosperously and peacefully. Broadwood, with his Cavalry, had secured the passage during the previous night, and the Infantry arriving found the opposite slopes in British hands. Moreover, the Engineers, under the indefatigable Boileau, assisted by the strong arms of the Blues and Life Guards, had cut a fine broad road up and down the steep river banks.
Once across we looked again for the halt. Twenty-four hours' rest meant convoys with full rations and forage for the horses. But in the morning there came a swift messenger from the Field-Marshal: main army crossing at Vereeniging, demoralisation of the enemy increasing, only one span of the railway bridge blown up, perhaps Johannesburg within three days--at any rate, 'try,' never mind the strain of nerve and muscle or the scarcity of food.
Forward again. That day Hamilton marched his men eighteen miles--('ten miles,' say the text-books on war, 'is a good march for a division with baggage,' and our force, carrying its own supplies, had ten times the baggage of a European division!)--and succeeded besides in dragging his weary transport with him. By good fortune the Cavalry discovered a little forage--small stacks of curious fluffy grass called manna, and certainly heaven-sent--on which the horses subsisted and did not actually starve. All day the soldiers pressed on, and the sun was low before the bivouac was reached. Nothing untoward disturbed the march, and only a splutter of musketry along the western flank guard relieved its dulness.
At first, after we had crossed the Vaal, the surface of the country was smooth and grassy, like the Orange River Colony, but as the column advanced northwards the ground became broken--at once more dangerous and more picturesque. Dim blue hills rose up on the horizon, the rolling swells of pasture grew sharper and less even, patches of wood or scrub interrupted the level lines of the plain, and polished rocks of conglomerate or auriferous quartz showed through the grass, like the bones beneath the skin of the cavalry horses. We were approaching the Rand.
On the evening of the 27th, Hamilton's advance guard came in touch with French, who, with one Mounted Infantry and two Cavalry brigades, was moving echeloned forward on our left in the same relation to us as were we to the main army.
The information about the enemy was that, encouraged by the defensive promise of the ground, he was holding a strong position either on the Klip Riviersburg, or along the line of the gold mines crowning the main Rand reef. On the 28th, in expectation of an action next day, Hamilton made but a short march. French, on the other hand, pushed on to reconnoitre, and if possible--for the Cavalry were very ambitious--to pierce the lines that lay ahead.
I rode with General Broadwood, whose brigade covered the advance of Hamilton's column. The troops had now entered a region of hills which on every side threatened the march and limited the view.
At nine o'clock we reached a regular pass between two steep rocky ridges. From the summit of one of these ridges a wide landscape was revealed. Northwards across our path lay the black line of the Klip Riviersburg, stretching to the east as far as I could sec, and presenting everywhere formidable positions to the advancing force. To the west these frowning features fell away in more grassy slopes, from among which, its approach obstructed by several rugged underfeatures, rose the long smooth ridge of the Witwatersrand reef. The numerous grass fires which attend the march of an army in dry weather--the results of our carelessness, or, perhaps, of the enemy's design--veiled the whole prospect with smoke, and made the air glitter and deceive like the mirages in the Soudan. But one thing showed with sufficient distinctness to attract and astonish all eyes. The whole crest of the Rand ridge was fringed with factory chimneys. We had marched nearly 500 miles through a country which, though full of promise, seemed to European eyes desolate and wild, and now we turned a corner suddenly, and there before us sprang the evidences of wealth, manufacture, and bustling civilisation. I might have been looking from a distance at Oldham.
The impression was destroyed by the booming of shotted guns, unheard, by God's grace, these many years in peaceful Lancashire. French was at work. The haze and the distance prevented us from watching closely the operations of the Cavalry. The dark patches of British horsemen and the white smoke of the Dutch artillery were the beginning and the end of our observations. But, even so, it was easy to see that French was not making much progress.
As the afternoon wore on the loud reverberations of heavy cannon told that the Boers had disclosed their real position, and we knew that something more substantial than Cavalry would be required to drive them from it. In the evening French's brigades were seen to be retiring across the Klip River, and the night closed in amid the rapid drumming of the Vickers-Maxims covering his movement, bringing with it the certainty of an Infantry action on the morrow.
At twelve o'clock a despatch from the Cavalry division reached Hamilton. French's messenger said that the cavalry were having a hot fight and were confronted by several 40-pounder guns, but the stout-hearted commander himself merely acquainted Hamilton with his orders from headquarters, to march via Florida to Driefontein, and made no allusion to his fortunes nor asked for assistance. Indeed, as we found out later, his operations on the 28th had been practically confined to an artillery duel, in which, though the expenditure of ammunition was very great and the noise alarming, the casualties--one officer and eight men--were fortunately small.
But the Boers, seeing the Cavalry retire at dusk, claimed that they had repulsed the first attack; their confidence in the strength of the Rand position was increased; their resistance on the next day was consequently more stubborn; and the 'Standard and Diggers' News' was enabled to terminate a long career of exaggeration and falsehood by describing one more 'bloody British defeat with appalling slaughter.'
The event of the next day admitted of no such misinterpretation.
The orders from headquarters for the 29th were such as to involve certain fighting should the enemy stand. French, with the Cavalry Division, was to march around Johannesburg to Driefontein; Ian Hamilton was directed on Florida; the main army, under the Field-Marshal, would occupy Germiston and seize the junctions of the Natal, Cape Colony, and Potchefstroom lines. These movements, which the chief had indicated by flags on the map, were now to be executed--so far as possible--by soldiers on the actual field.
The operations of the main army are not my concern in this letter; but it is necessary to state the result, lest the reader fail to grasp the general idea, and, while studying the detail, forget their scale and meaning.
Advancing with great speed and suddenness through Elandsfontein, Lord Roberts surprised the Boers in Germiston, and after a brief skirmish drove them in disorder from the town, which he then occupied. So precipitate was the flight of the enemy, or so rapid the British advance, that nine locomotives and much other rolling stock were captured, and the line from Germiston southward to Vereeniging was found to be undamaged. The importance of these advantages on the success of the operations can scarcely be over-estimated. The problem of supply was at once modified, and though the troops still suffered privations from scarcity of food, the anxieties of their commanders as to the immediate future were removed.
French had camped for the night south of the Klip River, just out of cannon shot of the enemy's position, and at eight o'clock on the morning of the 29th he moved off westward, intending to try to penetrate, or, better still, circumvent, the barrier that lay before him.
Such ground as he had won on the previous day he held with Mounted Infantry, and thus masking the enemy's front he attempted to pierce if he could not turn his right. For these purposes the force at his disposal--three horse batteries, four 'pom-poms,' and about 3,000 mounted men--was inadequate and unsuited. But he knew that Ian Hamilton, with siege guns, field guns, and two Infantry brigades, was close behind him, and on this he reckoned.
Firing began about seven o'clock, when the Boers attacked the Mounted Infantry Corps holding the positions captured on the 28th, and who were practically covering the flank movement of the rest of the Cavalry Division and the march of Hamilton's column. The Mounted Infantry, who were very weak, were gradually compelled to fall back, being at one time enfiladed by two Vickers-Maxims and heavily pressed in front.
But their resistance was sufficiently prolonged to secure the transference of force from right to left. By ten o'clock French had gone far enough west to please him, and passing round the edge of a deep swamp turned the heads of his regiments sharply to their right (north), and moved towards the Rand ridge and its under features.
By the vigorous use of his Horse Artillery he cleared several of the advanced kopjes, and had made nearly two miles progress north of the drainage line of the Klip River, when he was abruptly checked. A squadron sent forward against a low fringe of rocks, clumping up at the end of a long grass glacis, encountered a sudden burst of musketry fire, and returned, pursued by shell, with the information that mounted men could work no further northwards.
Meanwhile Hamilton, who had determined to lay his line of march across the Doornkop ridges (of inglorious memory), and whose Infantry, baggage, and guns were spread all along the flat plain south of the Klip, was drawing near. French halted his brigades and awaited him. The instructions from headquarters defined very carefully the relations which were to be observed between the two Generals. They were to co-operate, yet their commands were entirely separate. Should they attack the same hill at once, French, as a lieutenant-general and long senior to Hamilton, would automatically assume command. But this contingency was not likely to arise from the military situation, and the good feeling and mutual confidence which existed between these two able soldiers, and which had already produced golden results at Elandslaagte, made the possibility of any misunderstanding still more remote.
French was joined by Hamilton at one o'clock, and they discussed the situation together. French explained the difficulty of further direct advance. He must move still more to the west. On the other hand, Hamilton, whose force was eating its last day's rations, could make no longer détour, and must break through there and then--frontal attack, if necessary. So all fitted in happily. The Cavalry division moved to the left to co-operate with the Infantry attack by threatening the Boer right, and, in order that this pressure might be effective, Hamilton lent Broadwood's Brigade and two corps of Mounted Infantry to French for the day. He himself prepared to attack what stood before him with his whole remaining force.
By two o'clock the Cavalry in brown swarms had disappeared to the westward, both Infantry brigades were massed under cover on the approaches of the Rand ridge, and the transport of the army lay accumulated in a vast pool near the passage of the Klip--here only a swamp, but further east a river. The artillery duel of the morning had died away. The firing on the right, where the Mounted Infantry still maintained themselves, was intermittent. The reconnaissance was over. The action was about to begin, and in the interval there was a short, quiet lull--the calm before the storm. The soldiers munched their biscuits silently under the sun blaze. The officers and staff ate a frugal luncheon. Ian Hamilton with his aide-de-camp, the Duke of Marlborough, shared the contents of my wallets. I watched the General closely. He knew better than the sanguine people who declared the Boers had run away already. No one understood better than he what a terrible foe is the rock-sheltered Mauser-armed Dutchman. In spite of its cavalry turning movement, and other embellishments, the impending attack must be practically frontal. Supply did not allow a wider circle: to stop was to starve; and the position before us--half-a-dozen clusters of rock, breaking from the smooth grass upward slopes, except in colour like foam on the crest of waves, natural parapet and glacis combined, and, beyond all, the long bare ridge of the Rand lined with who should say what entrenchments or how many defenders--a prospect which filled all men who knew with the most solemn thoughts.
For my part, having seen the Infantry come reeling back in bloody ruin two or three times from such a place and such a foe, though I risked no repute on the event--scarcely my life--I confess to a beating heart. But the man who bore all the responsibility, and to whom the result meant everything, appeared utterly unmoved. Indeed, I could almost imagine myself the General and the General the Press Correspondent, though perhaps this arrangement would scarcely have worked so well.
At three o'clock precisely the Infantry advanced to the attack. Major-General Bruce-Hamilton directed the left attack with the Twenty-first Brigade, and Colonel Spens the right with the Nineteenth Brigade. The whole division was commanded by General Smith-Dorrien. The lateness of the hour gave scarcely any time for the artillery preparation, and the artillery came into action only a few minutes before the infantry were exposed to fire.
It must be noticed that the combination of the batteries and the support which they afforded to the attack was scarcely so effective as might have been expected from the number of guns available. But the General commanding a mixed force is bound to trust the various specialists under him, at least until experience has shown them to be deficient in energy or ability.
The Infantry advance was developed on the most modern principles. Each brigade occupied a front of more than a mile and three quarters, and the files of the first line of skirmishers were extended no less than thirty paces. Bruce-Hamilton, with the left attack, started a little earlier than the right brigade, and, with the City Imperial Volunteers in the first line, soon had his whole command extended on the open grass.
A few minutes after three, French's guns were heard on the extreme left, and about the same time the firing on the right swelled up again, so that by the half-hour the action was general along the whole front of battle--an extent of a little over six miles.
The left attack, pressed with vigour, and directed with skill by General Bruce-Hamilton, led along a low spur, and was designed to be a kind of inside turning movement to assist the right in conformity with the Cavalry action now in full swing. The City Imperial Volunteers moved forward with great dash and spirit, and in spite of a worrying fire from their left rear, which increased in proportion as they moved inwards towards the right, drove the Boers from position after position. While there is no doubt that French's pressure beyond them materially assisted their advance, the rapid progress of this Twenty-first Brigade entitled them and their leader to the highest credit. The Cameron Highlanders and the Sherwood Foresters supported the attack. The Boers resisted well with artillery, and their shells caused several casualties among the advancing lines; but it was on the right that the fighting was most severe.
The leading battalion of the Nineteenth Brigade chanced--for there was no selection--to be the Gordon Highlanders; nor was it without a thrill that I watched this famous regiment move against the enemy. Their extension and advance were conducted with machine-like regularity. The officers explained what was required to the men. They were to advance rapidly until under rifle fire, and then to push on or not as they might be instructed.
With impassive unconcern the veterans of Chitral, Dargai, the Bara Valley, Magersfontein, Paardeburg, and Houtnek walked leisurely forward, and the only comment recorded was the observation of a private: 'Bill, this looks like being a kopje day.' Gradually the whole battalion drew out clear of the covering ridge, and long dotted lines of brown figures filled the plain. At this moment two batteries and the two 5-in. guns opened from the right of the line, and what with the artillery of French and Bruce-Hamilton there was soon a loud cannonade.
The Dutch replied at once with three or four guns, one of which seemed a very heavy piece of ordnance on the main Rand ridge, and another fired from the kopje against which the Gordons were marching. But the Boer riflemen, crouching among the rocks, reserved their fire for a near target. While the troops were thus approaching the enemy's position, the two brigades began unconsciously to draw apart. Colonel Spens' battalions had extended further to the right than either Ian Hamilton or Smith-Dorrien had intended. Bruce-Hamilton, pressing forward on the left, found himself more and more tempted to face the harassing attack on his left rear. Both these tendencies had to be corrected. The Gordons were deflected to their left by an officer, Captain Higginson, who galloped most pluckily into the firing line in spite of a hail of bullets. Bruce-Hamilton was ordered to bear in to his right and disregard the growing pressure behind his left shoulder. Nevertheless a wide gap remained. But by this mischance Ian Hamilton contrived to profit. Smith-Dorrien had already directed the only remaining battalion--the Sussex--to fill up the interval, and the General-in-Chief now thrust a battery forward through the gap, almost flush with the skirmish line of the Infantry on its left and right.
The fire of these guns, combined with the increasing pressure from the turning movements both of Bruce-Hamilton and French, who was now working very far forward in the west, weakened the enemy's position on the kopje which the Gordons were attacking. Yet, when every allowance has been made for skilful direction and bold leading, the honours, equally with the cost of the victory, belong more to the Gordon Highlanders than to all the other troops put together.
The rocks against which they advanced proved in the event to be the very heart of the enemy's position. The grass in front of them was burnt and burning, and against this dark background the khaki figures showed distinctly. The Dutch held their fire until the attack was within 800 yards, and then, louder than the cannonade, the ominous rattle of concentrated rifle fire burst forth. The black slope was spotted as thickly with grey puffs of dust where the bullets struck as with advancing soldiers, and tiny figures falling by the way told of heavy loss. But the advance neither checked nor quickened.
With remorseless stride, undisturbed by peril or enthusiasm, the Gordons swept steadily onward, changed direction half left to avoid, as far as possible, an enfilade fire, changed again to the right to effect a lodgment on the end of the ridge most suitable to attack, and at last rose up together to charge. The black slope twinkled like jet with the unexpected glitter of bayonets. The rugged sky-line bristled with kilted figures, as, in perfect discipline and disdainful silence, those splendid soldiers closed on their foe.
The Boers shrank from the contact. Discharging their magazines furiously, and firing their guns at point-blank range, they fled in confusion to the main ridge, and the issue of the action was no longer undecided.
Still the fight continued. Along the whole Infantry front a tremendous rifle fire blazed. Far away to the left French's artillery pursued the retreating Boers with shells. The advanced batteries of Hamilton's force fired incessantly. The action did not cease with the daylight. The long lines of burning grass cast a strange, baleful glare on the field, and by this light the stubborn adversaries maintained their debate for nearly an hour.
At length, however, the cannonade slackened and ceased, and the rifles soon imitated the merciful example of the guns. The chill and silence of the night succeeded the hot tumult of the day. Regiments assembled and reformed their ranks, ambulances and baggage waggons crowded forward from the rear, the burning veldt was beaten out, and hundreds of cooking fires gleamed with more kindly meaning through the darkness.
The General rode forward, to find the Gordons massed among the rocks they had won. The gallant Burney, who commanded the firing line, was severely wounded. St. John Meyrick was killed. Nine officers and eighty-eight soldiers had fallen in the attack; but those that remained were proud and happy in the knowledge that they had added to the many feats of arms which adorn the annals of the regiment--one that was at least the equal of Elandslaagte or Dargai; and, besides all this, they may have reflected that by their devotion they had carried forward the British cause a long stride to victory, and, better than victory, to honorable peace. Ian Hamilton spoke a few brief words of thanks and praise to them--'the regiment my father commanded and I was born in'--and told them that in a few hours all Scotland would ring with the tale of their deeds. And well Scotland may, for no men of any race could have shown more soldier-like behaviour.
Then we rode back to our bivouac, while the lanterns of searching parties moved hither and thither among the rocks, and voices cried 'Bearer party this way!' 'Are there any more wounded here?' with occasional feeble responses.
Owing to the skilful conduct of the attack, the losses, except among the Gordons, were not severe--in all about 150 killed and wounded. The result of the fight--the action of Johannesburg, as we called it--was the general retreat of all the enemy west of the town under Delarey and Viljoen northwards towards Pretoria, and, in conjunction with the Field-Marshal's movements, the surrender of the whole of the Witwatersrand.
French, continuing his march at dawn to Driefontein, captured one gun and several prisoners. Ian Hamilton entered Florida, and found there and at Maraisburg sufficient stores to enable him to subsist until his convoys arrived.