On the 18th we heard that De Wet, after his successes at Taba N'chu and Sanna's Post, was at Wepener, where he had surrounded 2,000 men of Brabant's Horse.
* * * * *
Without orders, and without precise tidings of any kind, we remain five days longer at Brandfort.
General Delarey seems uncertain what to do. While he is casting about for a plan of action, we may take a glance at our enemies, and study them a little.
In this campaign the English army has collected together elements the most diverse. About one half of it consists of regular troops, the other half of volunteers, colonial troops, and contingents from every country. Their behaviour under fire varies greatly, according to their origin.
Tommy Atkins the regular, cold, calm, advances under a hail of projectiles, marching steadily in time, as if on the parade-ground. Scornful of danger, his head held high, he seems to say: 'Make way! I am an Englishman!'
The colonial, on the other hand, the cowboy, the volunteer from the Cape, from Rhodesia, and from Australia, a hunter by profession, fights in the same fashion as the Boers. He has their qualities and their defects: great precision as a marksman, but a lack of cohesion and of discipline. Crouching behind a rock, taking advantage of every scrap of cover, like his adversary, he hunts rather than fights.
But a good many militiamen, volunteers from various towns, and yeomen are even less brilliant, and exchange perils, privations, and fatigue for a sojourn in a Boer prison with great readiness. Some of the regular regiments, too, brought up to their fighting strength by hasty recruiting at the last moment, are not exempt from the shame of unnecessary capitulations.
But such proceedings are not characteristic of Tommy. The Englishman knows very little of the art of war, but he is brave, very brave.
The officers, with some few exceptions, are ignorant of everything an officer should know. The operations (?) of Sir Charles Warren, Lord Methuen, and Sir Redvers Buller seem to be a sort of competition of lunatics.
General Buller appears to have some inkling of it himself; on December 28 he writes as follows from the camp of Frere:
'I suppose our officers will in time learn the value of scouting; but in spite of all one can say, up to this our men seem to blunder into the midst of the enemy, and suffer accordingly.'
These words from the pen of the General who, on January 24, was to 'authorize' the Spion Kop fiasco are delicious!
The profession of arms in England is an occupation not at all absorbing, but very fashionable, very 'sporting.'
War itself is a sport, which has its special costume, its accidents proper to the soldier, but which is not supposed to engross the man. The fact that a great many officers brought with them, in addition to their khaki uniforms and braided tunics, tennis, football, and polo costumes, dress-coats and smoking-jackets, is significant of this state of mind.
The programme they had mentally drawn up was something of this sort: From 7 to 8 a.m., football, breakfast; from 9 to 10, lawn tennis; from 10 to 11, a battle; then a rest, a tub, massage, lunch!
The English officer is a gentleman, always perfectly well bred, often very well educated, and extremely affable; but he is a gentleman, and not an officer.
War entered upon by men of this type demands neither serious preliminary study nor effective progress in an army; and as regards military art and science, the English are still at the stage of the pitched battle.
It is but just to add that they have also preserved the cool, tenacious courage and the indomitable energy of their race, qualities which none can deny them. I saw some superb charges by English troops in Africa, but they always reminded me of Marechal Pelissier's remark after the heroic charge at Balaclava: 'C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre!'
I am no Anglophile, as my campaign of over eight months on the Boer side sufficiently proves, but it is the duty of a loyal soldier to recognise the qualities and the courage of his adversaries.
After this short digression, let us resume our survey of the English army.
During the first months, up to March, their artillery ammunition seems to have been very defective, often exploding imperfectly, or not at all. The fire took a long time to regulate, and was nearly always independent, rarely in salvoes. Nevertheless, I several times saw guns served in a remarkably efficient manner.
The horses are superb, and were constantly renewed; throughout the campaign they had from five to six quarterns of oats a day.
Their artillery equipment consists of a variety of very ordinary patterns. They have not yet any field-guns with breaks. The mounted artillery (Royal Horse Artillery) is a picked body of men. Its officers must have served four years in the Field Artillery, and must also be possessed of a certain private income.
Their guns, Armstrongs of 76.2 millimetres, are called 12-pounders (from the weight of the projectile). The Field Artillery uses 89 millimetre guns with 22-pound shells. The breech-blocks are screwed in. The mountain-guns (1882 pattern) are loaded at the muzzle.
The batteries consist of six pieces, with the exception of the volunteer batteries, which have only four.
Their shell-guns, of which even during their operations on the open plain they had a certain number of batteries (notably No. 61 Battery at Spion Kop, and No. 65 Battery at Paardeburg), are howitzers of the latest pattern; they are loaded at the breech, and are specially constructed for fire at a high angle of elevation.
Their naval guns and siege guns, dragged about by teams of from twenty to thirty oxen, were able to follow the troops in a satisfactory manner.
The lyddite shells did not prove very effective. They explode with a loud and violent report. The green smoke has a stupefying effect; objects such as stones or fragments of shell that come in contact with the explosive take on a sulphur-green tint.
The English used over 300 guns; and if we add to these thirty-five large naval guns, mounted upon siege-gun carriages, and those of the volunteer batteries, we get a total of about 400.
The cavalry has played but a secondary part; but the charges of General French's division at Poplar Grove were vigorously executed, and cost the lives of two officers and some fifty men. The relief of Kimberley by this same division was rather a raid of great rapidity than a cavalry action properly so-called.
The Boer method of warfare explains the powerlessness of the cavalry to take any prominent part in the operations; reconnaissances were carried out by Kaffir spies and Afrikander irregulars. Cavalry pursuit would, I think, have been perfectly useless, for the Boers would have immediately taken up defensive positions in kopjes inaccessible to horses, and the precision of their fire would soon have proved extremely harassing to the horsemen.
The infantry, to give it greater mobility, was relieved of every kind of impedimenta. The uniform is extremely practical as a whole.
The foot-soldier wears a khaki tunic with pockets, made in the summer of canvas, in the winter of cloth; trousers to match, the lower part bound up in strips of khaki flannel, on the same pattern as those of our Chasseurs Alpins. His helmet is absolutely unsuitable; heavy and ugly, it does not even protect him from the sun.
A big dark-gray cloak, a blanket, and a waterproof tent canvas, which theoretically are supposed to be carried on the back in two little rolls, are as a fact transported on trolleys drawn by mules marching on the left of each company.
The man carries only his canteen and his bandolier. The latter seemed to me too large and heavy to be practical, but the canteen, the lid of which makes a saucepan, seems convenient. It is the same for officers and privates. Each battalion is followed by a little Maxim gun, firing Lee-Metford cartridges.
The Mounted Infantry is, theoretically, an arm of the first importance. In practice it has its partisans and its detractors. I leave the task of authoritative pronouncement to critics more expert than myself, and shall only say that Colonel Martyr's and General Hutton's Mounted Rifles rendered very considerable service to Lord Roberts. The Mounted Rifle has an ordinary cavalry saddle, with a black cloak rolled up on the holsters before him. His uniform is the same as that of the infantry: a tunic, trousers, and flannel bandages. He wears the felt hat of the country. He carries two bandoliers and is armed with the Lee-Metford rifle and with a short bayonet like that of our artillery-men. The butt-end of his gun rests in a bucket hanging on the right of his saddle, and the stock is supported by a leather thong round the right arm like a lance.
The Mounted Rifle fights on foot, sheltering his horse behind a piece of rising ground. His horse to him is merely a rapid means of transport.
Belts and straps, swords, sheaths and hilts, guns and waggons, are all painted khaki colour.
After enumerating all the weapons used by the belligerents, it would be an unpardonable omission to say nothing of the famous dum-dum bullets.
Have they been much used? Yes, certainly, and on both sides.
The story that the Boers only used those they had captured from the English is quite inadmissible, for the Mauser rifles, which were used exclusively in the Transvaal, were largely provided with them.
I will try to describe the patterns chiefly used:
1. Section in the nickel casing, leaving the extremity of the leaden bullet exposed; the lead, getting very hot, emerges partly from the casing, flattens at the slightest resistance, and expands.
2. Four longitudinal sections in the nickel casing allow the bullet to flatten at the moment of contact, and to exude lead through the apertures.
These two first patterns, the ones most in use, are made for Lee-Metford and Mauser rifles.
The English also use hollow-nosed bullets, the extremity of which is cut or rubbed off.
The Boers, for their part, have manufactured solid projectiles, which show the lead through a straight section, and have the four longitudinal slits.
A few expansive Lee-Metford cartridges, hollow, and filled with fulminate, certainly existed, but I do not believe that they were ever in general use.
I need not insist upon the terrible injuries inflicted by all these projectiles. I have seen the whole of the back of a man's hand carried away by a bullet entering the palm, where it had only made a hole of the normal dimension.
During this war, in an arid country without any towns, Tommy has suffered terribly. Accustomed to the comfort of English barracks and to abundant meals, he was ill-prepared to spend his nights on the hard ground in cold and rain, with stones that bruised his ribs for his only bed, and half a biscuit for his dinner.
Now that we have inspected the English army, let us see what it has accomplished since our arrival.
First of all in Natal. In January, Ladysmith was still invested. The garrison of nearly 10,000 men and the inhabitants were decimated more by disease than by the occasional shells the Boers threw into the town every day as a matter of duty. Provisions had become scarce. An officer's ration was two biscuits and 240 grammes of horseflesh a day.
A dozen eggs cost L2 8s.; a dozen tomatoes, 18s.; a tin of preserved meat, L3; a tin of condensed milk, 10s.; a pot of jam, L1 11s.; a quarter of a pound of English tobacco, L3; a case containing a dozen bottles of whisky, L140, nearly L12 a bottle.
Nevertheless, a newspaper published by the besieged, the Lyre, is still facetious. It publishes the following notes:
'Telegram from London.--A shell thrown by Long Tom fell in the War Office. General Brackenbury received it with resignation.... A good many reputations have been damaged. The 2nd Army Corps has been discovered in the War Office portfolios.'
Meanwhile, Buller was still trying to cross the Tugela and relieve Ladysmith. Without any definite plan, perplexed and irresolute, he runs up and down the bank of the river like a cat afraid of the water.
At last he 'permits' Warren to attack Spion Kop. It is strange indeed to find Warren's 15,000 men (the 5th Division) and Buller's 25,000 setting out without a map, without information, and without a guide.
On January 16 Lieutenant Flood luckily discovered a ford, by which two battalions crossed the river; but then the Engineers were obliged to await the arrival of Lieutenant Mazzari's sailors to make a ferry.
At Trichardt's Drift two pontoon bridges were built, and the whole of Warren's division crossed.
On the 19th this General essays an out-flanking movement in the direction of Acton Homes; but this manoeuvre at the base of escarpments occupied by the enemy is found to be too dangerous; the division falls back upon Trichardt's Drift with its convoys and the 420 bullock-waggons intended for the Ladysmith garrison.
A frontal attack, facing east, is decided upon for January 20. The infantry is engaged 800 yards from the Boer trenches. It is three o'clock; an assault is about to be made on the position. But a counter-order arrives, the reason for which has never yet been explained.
On the 21st, 22nd and 23rd the English try to gain a few hundred yards. Clery and Warren confess themselves powerless, and turn the attack towards the south-east.
On the night of the 23rd General Woodgate receives orders to seize Spion Kop. General Woodgate, commanding the 9th Brigade, took part in the Abyssinian campaigns of 1868, the Ashanti campaign of 1873, and the Zulu campaign of 1879. Later he was in command of the English forces in West Africa, during the rising of 1898.
He took with him eight companies of the 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, six companies of the 2nd Battalion Royal Lancashire Regiment, two companies of the 1st Battalion South Lancashire Regiment, 194 men of Thorneycroft's Mounted Infantry, and a half-company Royal Engineers. To these were added two battalions from General Lyttelton's Brigade.
At 3.30 in the morning, after mounting the hill in silence, Lieutenant Audrey, in command of the advance-guard, took two of the Boer trenches with the bayonet. They were held by Boers of the Vryheid commando, who were few in number, and had been completely surprised.
But the Heidelberg and Carolina commandos, under Schalk Burger, came to the rescue. Urged forward by a German commando and by Ricciardi's Italians, they crossed an open space under a hail of bullets and lyddite shells, and established themselves on one of the three spurs formed by the kopje at this point.
The struggle was very fierce. Between nine and eleven the English charged three times with the bayonet and were repulsed. Under the deadly fire of the Mausers and the Maxim-Nordenfeldts they were obliged to fall back gradually, before any serviceable reinforcements had reached them.
Woodgate, mortally wounded, was replaced by Colonel Thorneycroft; the latter received neither orders nor instructions, though it would have been easy to have established optical telegraph communication, as the heliograph was working between Mount Alice and Bester Farm (Redvers Buller and White).[#]
[#] A heliograph was working on the height, but 'the signallers and their apparatus were destroyed by the heavy fire' (vide Sir Charles Warren's report).--TRANSLATOR.
His position had become most critical; a council of war was hastily called, on the decision of which the height was evacuated under cover of night.
On January 25 Sir Redvers Buller, who had hastened to Warren's camp, was informed of this catastrophe, which upset all his combinations. A general retreat was determined on, and the troops recrossed the Tugela.
After this bloody check, General Buller's report of the movement is delicious:
'The fact that we were able to withdraw our ox-waggons and mule transports over a river 85 yards broad and with a rapid current, without any interference from the enemy, is, I think, a proof that they have learnt to respect the fighting powers of our soldiers.'
The 'lesson' he had given the Boers had cost him 307 killed, thirty-one of whom were officers; 175 wounded, of whom forty-nine were officers; and 347 prisoners and missing, among them seven officers.
The Boers had 168 men killed. And, as Ricciardi has pointed out, but for the incomprehensible opposition of General Joubert, this retreat across the Tugela would have been, not a proof that the enemy had learnt to respect the fighting powers of the English, but a terrific rout. For General Louis Botha, surrounded by a dozen guns, was watching the English passing over their pontoons from the heights he had defended the night before. They were well within range, and the gunners were at their posts. It wanted but an order, the pontoons would have been destroyed, and Warren's division, hemmed in by the river, would have been massacred to a man. Why was this order not given?
In March, even before the death of the Generalissimo, a terrible word had been whispered--treason! At any rate, his inaction was highly culpable, for if the struggle seems hopeless now, there was a time when he might have turned it into victory, and made it another Majuba Hill campaign.
We know that Joubert's ignorance was almost incredible, that he could not even use a map, and that he stubbornly refused to learn. His attitude at the time of Warren's retreat and in certain other circumstances no doubt gave colour to the rumours of poisoning which followed the General's sudden death in March. It is conceivable that some Burgher, carried away by patriotic zeal, did not hesitate to commit a crime that the supreme command might pass into more faithful or bolder hands....
Later on, when I was a prisoner in the English camp, I said one day in jest to a young sub-lieutenant:
'You lost one of your best generals in March.'
'Who do you mean?'
Seeing his air of surprise and annoyance, a superior officer who was present said, with a smile:
'You are right!'
On February 1 the positions of the belligerents had undergone no very notable modification since the beginning of the war. We will recapitulate them for the last time, for English reinforcements were arriving from every side. Lord Roberts had assumed the supreme command, the besieged towns were shortly to be delivered, and the war was to enter upon an active phase.
In the north, in Rhodesia, General Carrington was at Marondellas, and Colonel Plumer at Safili Camp, near Buluwayo.
At Mafeking, Colonel Baden-Powell is made a Lieutenant-General. 'The Wolf who never sleeps,' as his men call him, is still besieged by Snyman.
Colonel Kekewich at Kimberley is surrounded by the troops of Du Toit, Kolby, Delarey, and Ferreira.
General Cronje, to the south of Kimberley, is well informed as to Lord Roberts' preparations, but he pays no heed to them, and meets all Villebois' far-seeing counsels with the stock phrase: 'I was a general when you were still a child.'
Schoeman is near Colesberg, facing General French.
Olivier, to the north of Burghersdorp, confronts Gatacre.
Botha and Schalk Burgher, on the north bank of the Tugela, hold in check Buller and Warren on the south bank, near Colenso.
Finally, Joubert, Prinsloo, and Lucas Meyer are round Ladysmith, where General White is still imprisoned.
On February 5 Buller, after deploying his troops as if for a frontal attack in the direction of Potgieter, at last crossed the Tugela at the foot of Dorn Kop. If perseverance deserves a reward, he has certainly earned one.
But the period of sieges draws to a close. The war is entering on another phase. Lord Roberts has completed his concentration, his orders are given, the invasion begins.