Mafeking, October 31st, 1899.
Cannon Kopje is in itself a hideous cluster of stones, perched upon a rocky ridge, which commands the town, a mile across the veldt. It is impossible to conceive any more positive death-trap than that which was contained in this kopje, and whatever may have been the determining element in its original construction, it is infinitely to be regretted that the possibilities of its being under shell fire were never very seriously contemplated. It was thrown up during the Warren expedition, and much as these things go, was neither removed nor replaced until Monday's bombardment established its complete uselessness under shell fire, and the folly of which Colonel Baden-Powell was guilty in leaving it unprotected. It is too late to say much now, but we have paid a heavy price for our neglect and carelessness. We found it here when we came; we put men into it, we are maintaining men there, and it is essential to the safety of our town that we should still hold it. Since the action an effort has been made to improve it; a splinter-proof shelter has been thrown across the trench, and traverses have been thrown out, but the work of the past few days has perhaps prepared the kopje for further shelling at the enemy's convenience. As a pièce de résistance in the defence of Mafeking, Cannon Kopje is the most strategically important position near Mafeking, and we may reckon that, at the moment when these wretched shepherds who are besieging us, secure this fort, to Mafeking itself there remains but a few hours.
Colonel Walford had under his command at the fort forty-four men with a Maxim detachment from the Protectorate Regiment. The fairest estimate of the men against him would place the Boer forces at no less than eight hundred with four guns. Sunday night, the look-out from Cannon Kopje saw a body of Boers making their way to a point somewhat nearer the town than had hitherto been their custom, and our expectations having been aroused by this movement we were inclined to believe that the enemy might attack upon the following morning. Our anticipations were further grounded upon the fact that the Boers to the south-west of the town, had by no means despised the claims of Cannon Kopje upon their attentions, and to every three shells which their guns had thrown into the town during the days which the siege had lasted, one, in a proportion of one in three, had been fired at Cannon Kopje. It has gradually come to be considered, therefore, that Cannon Kopje was a point against which the Boers would, sooner or later, direct an attack, since its capture was necessary to the successful execution of any general movement against the town.
The detachment of Police, who formed the garrison at Cannon Kopje, upon this day performed a most brilliant service for the town by their determined and gallant stand. Perhaps in war more than in anything else, chance is a greater arbiter than we like to consider, and if it had not been for the chance attack against Cannon Kopje, which resulted in the defeat of the Boer forces, it is not improbable that Mafeking itself would have been invaded by the enemy. The subjugation of this point, in reality the turning point in the siege, was, however, of vital concern to Commandant Cronje, since it had been his intention to bombard the south-east portion of the town, and to carry it with a large force which he had assembled during the night in the adjacent valley of the Molopo River. When day had dawned, the look-out from Cannon Kopje had already reported to Colonel Walford that there was unusual activity in the Boer camp; at the moment this was stirring news, and indeed the fatigues for the night had been barely dismissed when an experimental shell from the Boer artillery to test the range, opened the action. During the night, and about the close of Sunday, the enemy's artillery had taken up their position, and as the grey of dawn ushered in the fatal day, a large force of Boers moved out from their laager and occupied any point by which they might command the area of the fort. It seemed to me, as I witnessed their disposition, that at least a third of the forces before Mafeking had been concentrated upon Cannon Kopje, and if so great a tragedy had not attended the action, we could have afforded to laugh at the efforts of an enemy so hopelessly incompetent as the Boer force has proved itself to be. Against a mere gun emplacement and forty-four men, shell fire from four guns was directed, and the services of eight hundred men utilised. In the extreme west there was "Big Ben" and a seven-pounder; in the extreme east there was a twelve-pounder. Within a circle from these two points, and within effective range, a seven-pounder and quick-firing Maxim-Nordenfeldt had been stationed. The big gun took no part at all in this attack upon the kopje, but at every moment that the enemy's shell fire lapsed, the Boer marksmen opened with their Mauser rifles. Their rifle fire stretched from the extremities of either flank and enfiladed the interior trenches of the kopje. Nothing perhaps in the history of their operations along this frontier, was so calculated to prove successful as the Boer attack upon Cannon Kopje. They had the guns, the men, and they held all commanding points, while they themselves were snugly ensconced behind cover almost impervious to shell fire. With these advantages it would seem morally impossible that forty-four men could withstand the unceasing stream of shells, the mist of bullets, which comprised the zone of fire of which the kopje was the centre. Had these men wavered, such a thing is easy to explain; had they fallen back upon the town, their movement would have been in order. But by preference they stopped at their posts, the mark for every Boer rifle, the objective of the enemy's shell fire, until so great had been our execution upon the enemy that the Boers themselves proclaimed an armistice under the protection of the Red Cross flag. When this was decreed one-fourth of the detachment in the kopje were out of action, and eight of these were killed. But the lamentable list of fatalities had been piled up only at great cost to the enemy, since around the circle of the fort, and not four hundred yards away, we could see the Boer ambulances picking up their dead and wounded. It has been stated that they lost one hundred men, and that a further fifty were seriously wounded, but this is preposterous; while if we err at all towards our foe it is in the computation of the losses which we claim to have inflicted upon them. It is almost impossible to kill a Dutchman on the field, since they are as pertinacious and industrious as beetles in seeking cover. We saw two waggon loads pass from their firing-line to their laager, but I am inclined to doubt if we killed and wounded forty of the enemy. To have scored that number in the face of the most remarkable fusilade of bullet and shell which was directed against the fort is a wonderful feat, since it should not be forgotten that to every shot which we fired, there were at least four hundred barrels emptied at our marksmen in return. Such was the unfortunate construction of Cannon Kopje, however, and the gross neglect with which it has been treated to prepare for the present war, that it was not possible for our men to use their loopholes, and as it was most necessary to hold the fort each man who fired stood to his feet, and exposed himself above the breastwork to the full force of the Boer rifles. The enemy had carried out their movement so well, that under cover of their guns, and the great annoyance of their enfilading fire, they had made it almost impossible for the defenders of the fort to pay much attention to their advance. They compelled men to take cover, since if anything were seen to move behind the parapet of the fort, the Boers swept the area of the position with most cruel and deadly volleys. But cover was sought only at intervals, and when the hail of shells became too tempestuous, since the brave little garrison were impressed with a courage which scorned the fire which was turned upon them. When they manned the defences and maintained a sturdy front the Boers were nonplussed. They had expected to carry the position whereas they were losing men more rapidly than they were killing them. We fired by six, we fired independently, and whenever it was possible, the Maxim swept the front of the enemy, but, relatively speaking, nothing could prevail against the Boer numbers. It was easy enough to hold them in check, since the first well-directed volley made them fall back some few yards, but the heavy shell fire would sooner or later have told its tale. It had already claimed the majority of those who were hit, since if the shells did not burst and strike some one of those who were lying near, they splintered upon the stones which composed the defences of the fort and these splintered in their turn, coming into contact with any one who was crouching behind them for shelter. Cannon Kopje in itself was a terrible lesson; but it was also a magnificent example of gallant conduct in the field. Captain the Hon. D. Marsham who was killed, and Captain Charles Alexander Kerr Pechell, who died in the course of the morning from wounds received, were individually setting as fine an object lesson to their men as could be conceived, yet it must not be imagined that the standard of their bravery was much finer or much greater than that of their comrades. Colonel Walford and Colonel Baden-Powell have each expressed their high appreciation of the conduct of the men who survived the attack, and although, as befits their rank, the example of the officers was admirable, it was no better in reality than the action of the men over whom they were commanding. Captain Marsham was struck by a rifle bullet in turning to render some assistance to a wounded comrade. As he attempted to do this a second bullet passed through his chest, and a moment later he was dead, just as a third bullet passed through his shoulder. It was as fine a death as any soldier could perhaps have chosen, and it had the crowning mercy of being instantaneous.
Captain Pechell was busying himself in directing the rifle fire from the fort, and thereby directly drew the attention of the enemy. He, with a detachment of six men, ranged up from time to time, and picked off the enemy with well-aimed volleys. They had taken up their position behind the eastern wing of the kopje, engaging a body of the enemy whose flank fire enfiladed our position. The first shell which came at these six men fell short, and the second and the third bursting in the same place, scattered the outer covering of the breastwork. Pechell ordered his men to retire from the direct line of shell fire, when just as they were shifting their position a shell struck the stone parapet, and burst among them. Private Burrows was killed at once, just as he had been admiring the shooting of a comrade. Sergeant-Major Upton and Captain Pechell received some terrible injuries; poor Pechell died of injury extending from the thigh to the shoulder. No one regrets, so much as his comrades, Captain Pechell's gallant act, since had he not been endowed with most magnificent courage he would have preserved discretion in the method by which he exposed himself to the enemy, and by the death of these two officers, Captain Marsham and Captain Pechell, her Majesty loses two officers of exceptional promise and soldierly qualifications.
The casualties of this action alone were eight killed and three wounded, four being killed upon the spot, four dying of their wounds within twelve hours of the action. Captain Marsham, Sergeant-Major Curnihan, Private Burrows, and Private Martin were killed in the fort; Captain Pechell, Sergeant-Major Upton, Private Nicholas and Private Lloyd died of wounds; Sergeant-Major Butler, Corporal Cooke and Private Newton were wounded.
That night the garrison paid its farewell duties to those gallant men who were killed at Cannon Kopje. Their interment took place at six o'clock, and as we followed in the wake of the cortège we felt the shock which brought home to each of us the bitter fact that we should henceforth know them no more. The attack of the Boers upon Cannon Kopje had been so sudden, so utterly unexpected, and the manner in which these men of the British South Africa Police had met their death, had been so valorous that the sympathies of the entire town had been most keenly aroused and overcome by the appalling swiftness of the tragedy; there was no one who did not feel that in some way he was himself a mourner even though the men who had been killed were quite indifferent to him. Doubtless before the siege terminates we shall become accustomed to our situation, and realise that after all it is but the natural issue to a condition of belligerency that no one can quite tell what sorrow the day will bring forth. But at present these tragedies come upon us with a vivid freshness which is almost unnerving and which stimulate disquietening fancies in the minds even of the most callous.
The cemetery here is in close proximity to the Boer lines, and lies to the north of the town. It is a small enclosure banked by white rough stones, and set amid green trees, where gentle fragrance imparts a balminess to the breeze. It is as quiet and peaceful, by force of contrast to the dried-up veldt around, as some oasis in the desert. There is a winding path from the hospital to the cemetery; a road which at the present moment is flanked in two places by the forts of the Railway Division, and kept well defined by the footsteps of those who bear their burdens to the tomb. Since the siege began we have lost twenty-five, and with one engagement following rapidly upon another, nightfall usually ushers in a scene in which a small body of men may be seen gathered round an open grave, waiting irresolutely to take some share in the rites of the burial service. We paced slowly and solemnly along this veldt track, depressed not so much by the fate which had befallen them, as by the hideous realism with which the appalling uncertainty of war had been brought home to us. In the darkness of the evening we could see across the veldt the fires of the enemy's position, and as the cortège wound its way from the hospital we marched to the boom of the Boer artillery, while passing bullets sang the notes of our evening hymn above our heads, and dropped about us in the sand. Along the eastern front of the town as it lay behind us, an occasional blaze of light in the sky told us where the shells of the enemy were bursting, and to many came the thought that perhaps even of those who had remained to do their duty in the trenches, there were some who, less fortunate than others, might have already kept their last vigils. In time we reached the grave side, then as we gathered round the open spaces which had been so quickly prepared, those who felt their loss the keenest, those who had been comrades and close friends of the killed, paid their last homage to their memory by placing some little trinket, some slight token of personal friendship and affection, upon the winding sheet. At this juncture, when war is all around us, when every able-bodied man is standing to his arms, it is not possible to provide the dead with anything better than a simple sheet. The men who fall in these days are interred in their blood-stained uniforms, since there be no time in which to dress their bodies. Those upon whom the funeral service was about to be read lay in two waggons, silent shrouded witnesses to the fleeting vanity which attends all heroes. Around the entrance to the cemetery the officers of the staff, the commanding officers of the outposts, representatives of every corps and every troop had foregathered, following closely upon the heels of those who, bearing the grim burdens upon their shoulders epitomised in their action the horrors of war. It seemed as we stood there waiting, listening to the solemn words of the service, punctuated now and then as they were, by the screams of shells, by the angry snap of the Mauser, and the droning of the Martini bullets, that these men who were now dead had achieved the full honour of their calling. Indeed, many were there who would have given gladly their own lives in exchange for that of their friend, while there was not one who did not feel that the manner in which their end had come to them was impressed with all that was most noble.
For a moment after the service had concluded, we stood listening to the strains of the Last Call. As its solemn notes died away, and we retraced our steps to the various trenches and earthworks which, for the moment, gave us shelter, we little imagined that within a few hours, those of us who were correspondents would follow the body of one from amongst ourselves once more upon this road. The following night Lieutenant Murchison, who was in charge of the guns, wilfully shot with his revolver Mr. E. G. Parslow, war correspondent of the London Daily Chronicle. The horror of such a crime still hangs over us, and is not in any way diminished by the fact that an officer who had already distinguished himself by his career, should now be awaiting the verdict of a Field Court Martial upon the gravest charge in the criminal calendar. Poor Parslow had endeared himself to everybody by the genial sympathy which he extended to those who were themselves in trouble. He had won the admiration of many by the calmness with which he conducted himself under the heaviest fire.