The Camp, Mafeking,
October 14th, 1899.
Early this morning a mounted patrol under Captain Lord Charles Bentinck reported the Boers in strong position to the north of the town, and engaging them at once a general fight ensued.
Colonel Baden-Powell, upon receiving this information, instructed Captain Fitzclarence, D Squadron Protectorate Regiment, which is commanded by Colonel Hore, to cover the right flank of the armoured train, which had already moved out to support the patrol of A squadron, and which, under the direction of Captain Williams, British South Africa Police, drove the Boer artillery from two positions.
It may be said that this movement began the more serious and certainly the more determined portion of the engagement. Captain Fitzclarence was accompanied by seventy men. Upon the termination of the fight he had twelve wounded, two dead, and two others wounded so seriously that they since died. The firing-line at no time contained more than two troops, who, in extended order, and having seized the little cover which was available, hotly contested the position against four hundred Boers. Upon the arrival of the squadron under Captain Fitzclarence the Boers again began to fall back, and withdrawing their right flank from its propinquity to the armoured train, they projected their entire force well beyond the right flank of Captain Fitzclarence. The two forces both in extended order, the one falling back upon the lines of a position which had been carefully selected and which was admirably adapted to their methods of fighting, the other pursuing, then prepared to settle matters between themselves. Had Captain Fitzclarence but realised it, and had this young officer not been so intrepid, he would have recognised in this Boer movement the ruse by which they hoped to entice the "Red necks" within range of a position from which they could be more effectually surrounded. The motive in their movement to the rear was to secure the ample protection which was offered to them by the low ridge covered with timber, scrub, large masses of rock, and cut up by many little sluits, which extended along the line of their retreat. When once the Boers had gained this ridge they faced about, though it must not be imagined their retirement was in any way a mad gallop. They fell back in as good order as our squadron advanced, but so soon as they had lined up upon the ridge it could be seen how very greatly the Boer detachment out-numbered the men opposed to them. Moreover, in a little their artillery again spoke for itself, impressing the situation with still greater gravity. When the Boer guns opened fire Captain Fitzclarence very wisely availed himself of the shelter of three native huts, for the better protection of the horses and any wounded that might come on. Leaving his horses here, he advanced with his men in extended order, until he had secured a line of front immediately adjacent to the Boers. Indeed, our firing-line was at first only four hundred yards from the ridge; but, after a short experience of such close quarters, it was found to be wiser to take up a position some four hundred yards further off. The action of Captain Fitzclarence in endeavouring to meet the Boer commando was one of those inopportune acts of gallantry where loss, should the fight be successful, is overlooked. Technically speaking, of course, the strategy was all at fault, and it soon was seen how very serious the situation of Squadron D had become. By good luck I had joined this squadron in its move to the front, and it was very interesting to observe how a force, whose composite qualities were quite unknown, showed itself to be worthy of the utmost respect, and a corps upon which every reliance could be placed. Our men did not seem to mind the formidable odds against which they contended. The only disconcerting thing at the outset of the action being the position of the artillery on the Boer side, but for some reason the Boers ceased their shell fire very shortly after the action had begun. This again is another of those extraordinary blunders which creep into most fighting. The Boers might have wiped Squadron D out of existence by playing their nine-pounders upon our position. As it was, the Boer commandant withdrew his artillery from the fight and relied solely upon his rifles. From the little ridge, which, when our own firing-line had fallen back, was barely five hundred yards distant, there came a shower of Mauser and Martini bullets. The direction from which the fire came at first suggested that the Boers were undecided as to the area of the position which they would occupy, since shortly after the action began the enemy's line of fire expanded until it extended beyond our front. For the moment the firing-line developed, continuing to expand until it became evident that the fire of their either flank was here most effectually enveloping the rear of our position, and endangering our line of retreat as well as those who had been sent to the improvised hospital in the native huts. But it was impossible to avoid such a contingency with the numbers against which we had to contend. Indeed, there was no point from which this enveloping movement could be escaped, since the men with Captain Fitzclarence were already unduly extended. The rifle fire was very heavy.
From the ridge of the Boer position our complete formation and the situation of each unit could be seen. It merely required a little sharpshooting, keen sight, and sufficient energy to cause a disaster. Our men lay upon the ground seeking cover where they could find it, but they had neither the trees, nor the low-lying shrubs, nor the rocks, nor the sluits which had lent themselves to the Boers' shelter. They simply lay, a determined body of men, individually keen for distinction, and individually keen to put the Boers out of existence. The firing became hot and so rapid that in a very short time the heavy drain upon our ammunition was beginning to have effect. This again establishes the position of D Squadron. There were no supplies, nor was there any artillery support until too late. There was no ambulance, and no effective preparation for retirement. The horses behind the huts, the men in the front, were each in a position from which it certainly seemed that escape was impossible. The Boers, upon the contrary, had a train of supplies and an excellent line of cover for retreat.
The first Boer shell killed two horses and reduced to ruins a hut from the group which had given some protection to the wounded. The second shell fell wide, exploding, with no effect, into a sand heap. Between the intervals of shelling, the fire from the Boer Maxims whistled across the open spaces between the two firing-lines with a discord which was altogether out of harmony with the calmness and coolness of our men who, so soon as they had settled down to the serious business of the engagement, did not seem at all to mind the firing.
Two cousins, Corporal Walshe and Corporal Parland, Irishmen, were shot dead very soon after the engagement opened, but the absence of ambulance arrangements prevented those who were wounded in the advanced position from falling back to the rear. With a quiet and unsuspected courage they just stopped where they were shot until they could muster sufficient strength to drag themselves to the rear. Each wounded form became, as it crawled along, the objective of the Boer rifle fire, and no few of those who had been hit in action were hit again as they made their way to the field hospital. Here Major Anderson, with whom I remained from the moment of my arrival until we retired—who told me afterwards that it was a mere chance which caused him to accompany the squadron to the field, since in the confusion and din no one had thought to give him his orders—was busily dressing the men as they came in. The total area of the improvised dressing station was perhaps half a dozen yards; into that crowded six or seven horses, seven or eight wounded men, the Surgeon-Major, his orderly, and all those others who made their way through the firing-line from time to time. There seemed to be indescribable confusion in this little spot. The wounded men lay between horses' legs, rested upon one another, crouched against the walls of the huts, each recognising that the situation was one of gravity, and endeavouring to assist so far as he was able; those who were not too severely wounded helped to undress those who had been less fortunately hit, and to each as he fell back from the firing-line to have his wounds dressed, there was thrown a merry jest from his comrades. The nature of the wounds created no little interest among the men, since it was the first time that any one had seen the effect, upon human beings, of the Mauser bullets. One man as he came back was advised not to sit down; another man, with extraordinary coolness in seeing the nature of his wounds, which were seven, exclaimed with a quaint blasphemy, that it still might be possible for him to enjoy the functions of a married man. But if this were the scene at the hospital base, the scene at our firing-line and at that upon the Boer side was very different. We possibly occupied a line of front some eighty yards in extent, and as the Boers saw that the hospital hut was becoming the centre of our position, so they extended their lines until a direct cross fire from the extremities of the two flanks were added to the direct fire from the centre; each man, therefore, was under a converging fire from three distinct points, and had it not been that the Boers' aim was not so good as their range our losses would have been much more serious than has happily proved to be the case. We could see the Boers sitting in the branches of the trees; we could see them crouching beneath bushes; we could detect them, from the fire of their rifles, in the shelter of the rocks and in the depths of the sluits. It soon became the first serious consideration with our men to try to hit them as they sat in the branches of the trees, and it was because Private Wormald caught sight of a piece of a paper as it dropped from a tree that he was able to shoot the Dutchman who was known to have shot the two cousins. It was almost a unique method of warfare. Anon and again our fellows enjoyed a little Boer potting among the foliage of the trees. Here and there a body was seen to fall heavily from a branch, or to spring up and fall heavily into a bush; that was as much as we could gauge of the effect of our own handiwork. Those who were behind the stones were possibly as safe as those who were in the sluits, but through the lack of any effective support our shooting, good as it may have been, was not sufficiently strong for us to maintain our position. If D Squadron were to save itself from an unfortunate disaster it seemed that it would have to fall back. The wounded men had come in so rapidly from the front, and ammunition had been so heavily expended, that many of those situated upon the extreme flanks of our position were completely without ammunition. In one case five men had no ammunition left, and one volunteered to go to the rear to obtain some from those who had been wounded, and were consequently out of action. He successfully accomplished this errand, sustaining, however, such wounds as must prove fatal.
Captain Fitzclarence maintained his splendid isolation as long as possible, and just as every one was wondering why, in the name of Heaven, no artillery had been sent to support the squadron in a position it was never intended to occupy, a gun detachment was seen to gallop into action on the extreme right flank. Between our men and the gun perhaps a mile stretched, and when we could see that they were preparing to fire, each for a brief moment stopped to congratulate his fellow upon the succour at hand. In this they didn't think of themselves, but they hoped that with the aid of the gun they might still be able to maintain their position and give the enemy a hiding.
Suddenly a cloud of smoke hung over the gun and a shell shrieked through the air. We rapidly speculated upon the amount of damage it would make, when, with noisy force, it burst among us. We thought at first that the shell had fallen short, and we hoped the next would reach the enemy, but when Lieutenant Murchison, who was in charge of the gun, dismissed his second shell, and it was so well directed as to fall upon one of the three huts behind which we were sheltering, the luckless position of D Squadron received unmerited but instantaneous aggravation and aggrievement, since it was turning the tables with a vengeance upon the enemy when the guns coming to our support set, forthwith, to shell us. The menace which our own artillery had thus unconsciously become to one portion of our wounded men about these huts had to be immediately removed, and I was one of two who were permitted to carry intelligence of his mistake to the officer in charge of the seven-pounder. In galloping across to the position of the gun, the third shell thrown in this direction burst just past my horse's head, the force of its wind almost lifting me from the saddle. The moment was of interest, and I only realised my escape when, upon returning, I found the base of the shell and my helmet lying quite close to each other. When a new direction had been given to the guns, and their fire brought to bear upon the position which the Boers occupied, the rifle fire from the front of the ridge gradually slackened, while, under cover of the very excellent work which this gun was executing, our men fell back upon the hospital. Here an order had just arrived instructing Fitzclarence to send back his wounded to the armoured train, those uninjured covering the movement. While the squadron was engaged in completing this order, no shots were fired from the position of the Boers, and we concluded that they also were engaged in withdrawing at discretion. Captain Fitzclarence, Lieutenant Swinburne, and myself were the last to leave the line of action, tailing off ourselves in the same open order that the remainder of the squadron had been ordered to preserve. As we retired Captain Fitzclarence put three wounded horses out of their misery, leaving their bodies for the vultures that were already wheeling in circles in the realms of space above us. These were the last shots fired in this action, although through mistake, the Boers had fired upon the ambulance train, mistaking it for a new instrument of destruction. Subsequently we heard that the Boers buried their dead at Ramathlabama, and we also have heard that all the houses in that place have been seized as accommodation for the 107 Boers who were wounded in the fight. These numbers may probably be exaggerated, but there is no cause to doubt that their loss was much greater than ours, since the proportion of their men to ours was greater than twelve to one. Saturday thus initiated the Boer war along this frontier, and after the morning's excitement the rest of the day passed without incident. Colonel Baden-Powell, Colonel Hore, and Colonel Walford, the one as the colonel in command, the others as the commanding officers of the Protectorate Regiment and the British South Africa Police, congratulated their men upon the stand which they had made in the morning, and the courage which they had displayed. Brevet-Major Lord Edward Cecil, C.S.O., described Captain Fitzclarence's movement as brilliant. It is a question whether this movement was not, at least, characterised by an equal amount of foolhardiness. However, the officer himself showed such coolness in this his baptism of fire as to deserve much congratulation upon his individual gallantry.