Mafeking, October 28th, 1899.
Last night there occurred one of those isolated instances of gallantry by which the British sustain their high reputation. For some days, in fact ever since the Boers secured their siege guns from Pretoria, the enemy has been building a circlet of trenches around Mafeking. At the least distance they are perhaps 2,500 yards, unhappily beyond the reach of our rifle and Maxim fire. We have seen them lounging in their breastworks, we have seen them gathered around their camp fires, and the inability of Mafeking to shake off these unwelcome intruders has been daily a source of irritation. We have not, of course, allowed them to enjoy, undisturbed, the seclusion of their own earthworks, and, as a continual goad in their side, little expeditions have been despatched to make night fearsome to our besetting foe.
Another of these midnight sorties was undertaken last night, proving in itself to be the most important move on our side since Captain Fitzclarence and his men engaged the Boers two weeks ago. The same officer, 55 men of D Squadron Protectorate Regiment, with Lieutenant Murray and 25 men of the Cape Police, were the prime movers in an attempt to rush the first line of earthworks of the Boer position. Shortly after 11 o'clock Captain Fitzclarence, Lieutenant Swinburne and their men started on the perilous undertaking. In the faint light of the night we could see their figures from our own redans, silently hurrying across the veldt. In the blue haze of the distance a black blur betokened the position of the enemy, and it seemed that at any moment the hoarse challenge of the Boer outpost would give the alarm. The men crept on in slightly extended order, holding themselves in readiness for the supreme moment. Nearer, and yet nearer, they drew to the Boer entrenchments. The silence was intense. The heavy gloom, the mysterious noises of the veldt at night, the shadowy patches in the bush, all seemed to heighten the tension of one's nerves. In a little while our men were within a few yards of the enemy; then furtively each fixed his bayonet to his rifle, and as the blades rang home upon their sockets the gallant band raised a ringing cheer. Instantly the Boer position was galvanised into activity, figures showed everywhere, shots rang out, men shouted, horses stampeded, and the confusion which reigned supreme gave to our men one vital moment in which to hurl themselves across the intervening space. Then there was a loud crash, for, as it happened, many of our men were nearer the entrenchments than had been anticipated, and their eager charge had precipitated them upon some sheets of corrugated iron which the Boers had torn from the grand stand of the racecourse for protection from the rain. With our men upon the parapet of the trench, a few rapid volleys were fired into the enemy, who, taken completely by surprise, were altogether demoralised. Those in the first trenches seemed to have been petrified by fright. Where they were, there they remained, stabbed with bayonet, knocked senseless with the rifle's butt, or shot dead by the fire of their own men. Captain Fitzclarence himself, with magnificent gallantry and swordsmanship, killed four of the enemy with his sword, his men plying their bayonets strenuously the while. This was the first trench, and as the fight grew hotter, some little memory of their earlier boasts, inspired the Boers to make a stand. They fought; they fought well. Their vast superiority in numbers did not enter into their minds, since Commandant Botha told Lieutenant Moncrieff, who had charge of the flag party that arranged for an armistice upon the following morning, that he thought that at least a thousand men had been moved against his position. The long line of front held by the enemy flashed fire from many hundred rifles. Houses in the town caught the bullets, the low rises to the east of the position threw back the echo of the rifle shots. Our men became the centre of a hail of bullets. The Boers fired anywhere and everywhere, seeming content if they could just load their rifles and release the trigger. Many thousands of rounds of ammunition were expended in the confusion of the moment, the enemy not even waiting to see at whom, or at what, they were aiming.
After the first fury had been expended, our men charged at the bayonet point right across the line of trenches. It was in this charge that the Boers lost most heavily. So soon as the squadron reached the extremity of the Boer position they retreated independently, their movement covered by the flanking fire of the Cape Police, which added still further to the perplexities of the enemy. The galling fire of the Cape Police disturbed them for some time longer than was required in the actual retirement of the force.
The Boers had been completely unnerved by the onslaught of the Protectorate men, and a feature of the hours which elapsed between the final withdrawal of our force from the scene of conflict, and the advent of dawn, was the heavy firing of the enemy, who still continued discharging useless volleys into space. The loss to us in this encounter had been 6 killed, 11 wounded, and two of our men taken prisoners, but the gravity of the loss which the enemy sustained can be most surely measured by the fact that, until a late hour this afternoon, they could not find the spirit to resume the bombardment. It is said in camp here that one hundred Boers will have reason to remember the charge of the Protectorate Regiment.
The way in which these respond to the duties asked of them is shown by their conduct during this night attack. Nevertheless, when the enrolment of the Protectorate Regiment began in August, 1899, any practical opinion upon the future value of its individual units, as upon its possible mobility, was the merest hazard. When Colonel Hore accepted the command of the regiment, and endeavoured, by every means in his power, to promote its development, there were many who expressed, after witnessing the preliminary parade of the recruits at Ramathlabama Camp, the verdict that the short space of time which was allowed to the officers to knock the squadrons into shape would not permit the men attaining any proficiency whatsoever. In those early days of the war volunteers came from near and far, from Johannesburg upon the one side, from Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, and East London upon the other, to enlist in the service of her Majesty. Time-expired men threw up their billets when the opportunity presented itself of rejoining the colours, and while enlistment was proceeding, the immediate vicinity of Ramathlabama and the roads from the Transvaal into Mafeking presented the appearance of a district which has been made the final destination of some mining rush. Pedestrians from the Transvaal humping their swags, passengers by train from the south, well-to-do youngsters from different parts of the Protectorate or from the back-lying areas of the colony, all made their roads converge upon Mafeking. At that time, however, when the work of enlisting was in its infancy, and the services of able-bodied men were much required, the Colonial Government, at the instigation of Mr. Schreiner, whose dubious policy was cheerfully endorsed by his colleagues, refused to allow her Majesty's soldiers, who were in process of enlistment for that special purpose, to afford Mafeking the moral value of their presence. No sooner had word reached the ears of the Colonial Cabinet that the work of recruiting was proceeding around Mafeking, than the recruiting officers were ordered to withdraw immediately from the precincts of the colony so long as they continued to act in a way which might give some possible offence to the dear friend, guardian, and patron saint of Cape Colony, Paul Kruger. After a very decorous and manly remonstrance, Colonel Hore withdrew his headquarters and his men sixteen miles across the border to Ramathlabama Camp, from which point the enlistment of the Protectorate Regiment was continued.
The Protectorate Regiment is strictly an irregular soldiery, composed of men drawn from every rank of African life, many of whom are gentle by birth and education and possessed of no little means. In the ranks of the regiment there are those who have been at the university and public schools; there are also mechanics, miners, farm hands, and men who have known office life. The nationalities of the men are as varied as their occupations in peace times are diffuse. There are a few Americans, some Germans, and Norwegians, although for the most part the regiment is British; as a whole, perhaps, it is an ill-assorted assembly of adventurers, animated with the same love of fighting and the glories of war, of lust and bloodshed which characterised the lives of the buccaneers of old. In other days, and in other lands, they would be sailing the sea for treasure, or combining in the quest for gold in some hidden extremity of the world's surface. The prospect of free rations, of uniform, and allowance of pocket money, was of course sufficient to draw a few; but, as a body, the idler upon the farm, the bar-loafer from the town, and the thoroughly incompetent are as distinguished by their absence, as the general tone of the regiment is suffused with martial ardour. It is quite impossible to treat these men with the cast-iron regulations which enthral the Imperial soldier. He does not understand the petty exactions, the never-ending restraint which would be imposed upon him had he accepted the conditions which govern and regulate life in our army. He experiences and gives voice to a very genuine aversion to fatigues of every description, and it has required the exercise of much tact and no little personal persuasion to induce the men to become reconciled to the labours of their calling. They have accepted with some diffidence the fact that it is necessary for them to fulfil, at the present moment, many irritating, but essentially important fatigues which may not have entered into their original forecast of the duties which would be allotted to them. They frequently indulge in outbursts of choice expletives, at the expense of their non-commissioned officers, while they do not hesitate to correct, or at least to argue about what they imagine to be wrong in the execution of some order.
The conditions under which these men were enrolled were supposed to admit those only who could ride as well as shoot, and before the initial tests were applied the standard of the regiment upon paper was exceptionally high. After the first parade, however, it was seen that by far the great majority of the regiment was incapable of managing their horses. Upon parade, when horses and men were put through cavalry exercises, detached and riderless steeds would be seen galloping and bucking in all directions. However, those who were unproficient did not propose to allow their cattle to hold the mastery for any longer than was absolutely necessary, and many was the tough fight fought to a bitter end between the raw recruit and his unbroken, unmanageable mount. After many days and an inordinate amount of hard work, the troop officers managed to lick their men into a very presentable appearance until, with the beginning of the war, the squadrons of the Protectorate Regiment were as capable and efficient a body of irregular mounted infantry as any that had been enrolled by local movement in South Africa. During the siege there has been no chance to continue those early exercises, and it is not at all unlikely that when they become mounted once more the former difficulties will again assert themselves and, bearing this in mind, it is difficult to conclude that as a fighting force they will not be more at home upon their feet than in the saddle, since they will find their attentions occupied as much by the management of their steeds as with the handling of their weapons.
If they be not quite so mobile in the field as more experienced troops, there is no doubt that they present a determined front to the fire of the enemy. They have a keen relish for any preparation which appears to lead to some immediate collision, while they profess an equally profound disgust at their enforced inactivity. How these men might act if, through the smoke-filled air, they saw an array of sparkling bayonets, or heard the serried ranks of hostile lines advancing to the charge, it is impossible to say; but in the few fights which we have had the personal element has been strong, and the individual courage high. We have lacked the spectacle of the many-coloured, steel-edged columns impelled forward by the impulse of some dominant power, with the dusty faces of the men, the stumbling, sore-stricken feet, the gasping breath of the stragglers who tired, dead beat, and thirsty, limp to the rear; but the play of human passion in our little fighting force has not been absent. We have had the wager of life against life, the angry, turbulent crash of fierce-blooded men, fighting under the shadow of death, with their emotions strained as they struggled in the very atmosphere of passion. And it has done us good to see how reliable the force has been about which so much doubt existed. Unlike the Imperial service, these irregular corps act as much for the unit as they do for the mass, as animated by terror or by valour, by a fatal despair, or by a blooded triumph, they fight for an individual supremacy. That is the moment of their triumph, and it is these splendid qualities of savage and physical animalism which makes it more easy to treat them with a wider latitude than is usual. Their magnificent hardihood, their splendid fighting gifts, their lurid blasphemy, their admiration for officers who are men, their appalling debauchery, gives to them the ideal setting of the rough but very gallant soldier of fortune, who, scorning his enemy and hating a retreat, has played so omnipotent a part in the history of the universe.