The Camp, Orange River,
September 26th, 1899.
Soldiers and sand—clouds of sand whirring and eddying through the air, drifting through closed windows, piling in swift-mounting heaps against barred doors. That is the camp here, stretching upon both sides of the railway line in orderly rows, flanked upon either extremity by a ragged outspan of waggons, empty to-day but soon creating work for numerous fatigue parties when the orders come to push forward the supplies. At present it is only a small cluster of tents, many more tents than men—this to confuse the friendly Boers who, visiting the railway station refreshment bar for the purposes of espionage, stop to drink in an effort to gauge the strength of the camp by counting the ranks of dirty white tents which flap and quiver in the breezes. Such an impossible little camp, but so impressed with the true spirit.
Colonel Kincaid, R.E., commands at Orange River, and his force comprises a few companies of the Loyal Lancashire Regiment, a troop or two of the Cape Police District II., sections of the Field Company of Engineers, a composite field battery and a few stores—but a general numerical insufficiency of men and munitions. Major Jackson, with Major Coleridge, commands the companies of the Loyal Lancashires that were detailed with him from Kimberley, where his regiment lies, for duty at this camp. Surgeon-Major O'Shanahan takes care of the field hospital which has been attached to the camp, and Captain Mills, R.A., controls the artillery. It is a happy family, this British camp in which the necessity for hard work is understood and the members of whose circle willingly endure the difficulties and privations of their situation. From the ends of the earth they have come together to be dumped down upon the Orange River flats, where for many days they will remain an important unit in the scheme of preparation, but one which stands alone and aside from the general hurry and scurry of our belated movements. There is a bridge across the Orange River at this point, and it is the duty of protecting it and guaranteeing it from the attentions of the Boers, guarding its approaches by cunningly contrived gun emplacements and enveloping its definite security in a network of defensive measures, which is, for the time, the sole objective of the various officers and detachments that compose Colonel Kincaid's command.
The conformation of the country abutting upon Orange River presents those composite peculiarities of construction which contribute more generally to the setting of the high veldt. Orange River is broken by hills and river-beds, dry courses with rock-strewn banks, patches of sand, sparsely grassed and destitute of bushes. The land to the west rolls smoothly to the watershed of the river, breaking into bush and short rises about the banks of the stream. The water clatters among stones and rocks to the north-west, leaving to the south-west and due west the same barren open sand flats. Upon the east there is a slight contrast to the evenness of the pastureless country which meets the sunset; but the fall of the land due south, south-east, south-west, is unchanging, the compass shifting due east and north-east before the abrupt and rugged lines of the country are exposed. Then, and then only, does the face of the country reveal its uncouth and uncomfortable character. East, whence the waters stream beneath the railway bridge, the watershed is herring-backed, concealing, beneath rough folds of rising ground, stretches of bush veldt and stony patches. High ridges debouch at right angles to the stream, with uncertain contours and abrupt declivities; detached kopjes rise from upon the face of the country, claiming classification with the ages around them, but standing aloof with forbidding mien—a formidable menace to the chance of successful storming. Parallel hills and ridges distinguish the hinterland of this watershed so far inland as the areas of the Orange Free State, while the broken and dangerous character of the country east-north-east, continuing until the watershed of the Modder River, still further prolongates these disturbing features. The valley of the river, within a mile from the stretch of flats which rolls away from the bases of the hills, converges until the sides lie within a few hundred yards of each other. There the stream rushes and roars with some force, until the wider reaches of the plain give to the pent-up waters a greater space of revolt. From the mouth of the valley the river wanders with easy indifference across a broader course to the west; gathering its volume from the seasons, and leaving in the hot weather a margin of shining stones upon both sides of the river bed. The hills are in pleasant contrast to the even tenour of the veldt, and the cool waters of the river invite repose. Small game lurk within the cover of the scrub, mountain duck haunt the mountain cataract; cattle roam across the land, snatching mouthfuls of dry herbage, while just now the sides of the hills throw back the echo of the military occupation, the noises of the camp, the calls of the horses upon the picket lines, the heavy thudding of the picks, the shrill rasping of the shovels in the places where the men are throwing up the necessary field works.
Everywhere is the spectacle of orderly bustle. The summits of the hills are crowned with earthworks, brown lines of trenches traverse the valley, block houses command the entrances of the bridge. These are the signs of the times, encompassed in an unremitting rapidity of execution. Colonel Kincaid rides from point to point, throwing advice here, praise there, and expressing general satisfaction over the labours of his men, as the scheme of defences runs to its conclusion. Out across the plain, upon Reservoir Hill, the sappers are constructing an entrenched position under the direction of Captain Mills, R.A., and especially designed to protect the water supply. Roads have been cut across the rear face of the hill, a breastwork of stones and earth encircles the Reservoir, and gun emplacements flank either extremity. It is a pretty work, carefully conceived, skilfully constructed, commanding the portion of the camp, and sweeping the approaches to the bridge. From the top of Reservoir Hill, no great eminence, the surrounding country is easily inspected, and the more one scans and studies the peculiarities of its formation, the more one becomes impressed with the fact that it presents the gravest obstacles to the British principles of military operations. A well-equipped and mobile force will hold the hills for eternity—but God help the troops who are launched against these awful kopjes which create the strength of such positions. The officers commanding these detached units along this border have received instructions to prepare extensive lines of fortifications round their bases, and at De Aar, as at Orange River and elsewhere, these commands have been complied with, until now the positions need only the service of some good artillery to be made impregnable. When cables be at the disposal of a possible enemy, it is as well to be reticent upon the cardinal weaknesses within our lines, but already there are signs of the extreme haste with which the troops have been despatched to the front. No unit would appear to be complete, despite the months of warning in which there has been ample opportunity to prepare. Everything is rushed through at the last, and although urgent orders be issued to make ready against attack, no artillery is available for the purpose. Everything is obscured in idle talk or deferred by empty promise, and the authorities appear to be continuing a policy which gives to the Boers some justification of their hopes of success. The Imperial authorities, in relying so much upon the moral effect of their artillery, appear to forget that the better it is, the more important the results it achieves; the more important the position to be defended, the better it should be. The Boers lose nothing by possessing modern weapons of defence. But with a wing only of the King's Own Light Infantry to occupy De Aar, and four companies of the Loyal Lancashires to hold Orange River, the need of strong artillery support is manifest. It has been laid down that the proportion of guns to men is as near as possible three guns to one thousand men, but this proportion must depend upon the nature of the service upon which the force is to be employed, the topography of the theatre of war and the quality of the troops. A force intended more for the occupation of strong positions, must have a larger proportion of guns than an army intended for offensive operations in the field. De Aar, as one base of operations toward the lines of least resistance to the western, southern, and south-eastern approaches to the Orange Free State, is even more important than our position at Orange River, which is intended, in the event of any campaign, to protect the railway bridge and the lines of communication with the north. But at De Aar the lines of railway, which converge upon it, link Pretoria and Bloemfontein to Cape Town, connect the north with the south, join Cape Town with the south and south-east by a stretch of line almost parallel with the southern border of the Orange Free State. Yet, so dilatory have been the efforts of headquarters to obtain the necessary artillery, that, having reduced South Africa to a condition of war, they split up between De Aar, Orange River, and other defenceless, but important, strategic positions along the western border, improvised field batteries drawn from any garrison lumber room which came handy.
The artillery at present upon this border is, as a consequence, the seven-pound muzzle-loader which was obsolete when the passing generation of officers were at the "shop." The inadequacy of the artillery is a matter of the gravest concern, since, even if the troops at these places be sufficient to police the disaffected areas, and to hold in check the local disposition to rebel, in face of the weapons of precision with which the Boer forces be armed, it would be impossible, should they move forward, for the British artillery to maintain any position which was incumbent upon the possession of good artillery. So well is this realised by our Intelligence Department, that elaborate precautions are taken by that Bureau, as well as all commanding officers, to prevent the enemy from discovering that, in its main part, the strength of the batteries in opposition has been drawn from derelicts in the garrison stores. These improvised field batteries might be of service in maintaining the line of communication if any advance of British troops be made, but as an actual factor in any defensive or offensive movements which the forces may undertake, their restricted utility escapes all serious consideration, and puts our present artillery almost at once out of action. The physical configuration of the country urgently calls for the immediate despatch of modern weapons, similar to those which the Sirdar used in his Soudan campaign. In addition to this an exchange, piece by piece, between these seven-pounder muzzle-loading monstrosities and the converted twelve-pounders, breech-loaders and high-velocity quick firers, might be seasonably effected. Five-inch howitzers, too, should also be sent forward. But the lack of reliable artillery is scandalous, and the sooner that guns, of a calibre which is in a true proportion to the importance of the positions which they will command, arrive upon the scene, the less uncertain will be the results of any actual contact between our forces in their present deplorable condition and those of the African Republics with whom we are so soon to be at war.