December 23rd, 1899.
We take a keen interest in our artillery, although we never cease to deplore the fact that the War Office did not think it necessary to send to Mafeking anything better than old muzzle-loading seven-pounders of the Crimean period. Their range is restricted, and their mobility is greatly inferior to more modern types; but if they have not enabled us to do very much, we have at least been able to return their fire. In this way quite a little flutter of enthusiasm has been aroused through having unearthed an antiquated sixteen-pounder gun. It would seem to have been made about 1770, and is identical with those which up till very recently adorned the quay at Portsmouth. Its weight is 8 cwt. 2 qr. 10 lb., and it was made by B. P. and Co. It is a naval gun, and is stamped "No. 6 port." How it came here is uncertain, and its origin unknown; but one gathers that it must have been intended more for privateering than for use in any Government ship of war, since it is wanting in all official superscription. This weapon, which we have now christened "B.-P." out of compliment to the Colonel, has been lying upon the farm of an Englishman whose interests are very closely united with the native tribe whose headquarters are in Mafeking Stadt. Mr. Rowlands can recall the gun passing this way in charge of two Germans nearly forty years ago. He remembers to have seen it in the possession of Linchwe's tribe, and upon his return to the Baralongs, after one of his trading journeys, he urged the old chief to secure it for use in defence of the Stadt against the attacks of Dutch freebooters. The chief then visited Linchwe and bought the gun for twenty-two oxen, bringing it down to Mafeking upon his waggon. In those days it had three hundred rounds of ammunition, which were utilised in tribal fights. With the exception of visits which the gun made to local tribes, it has remained here and is now in the possession of Mr. Rowlands. It has recently been mounted, and is in active operation against our enemies. We have made balls for it, and are intending to manufacture shells, in the hope that we shall at least be able to reach the emplacement of "Big Ben." The first trial of "B.-P." in its new career gave very satisfactory results. With two pounds of powder it threw a ball of ten pounds more than two thousand yards. The power of the charge was increased by half pounds until a charge of three pounds threw a ball of the same weight as the first rather more than two miles. We, therefore, have pinned our hopes upon it, and commend to the responsible authorities the reflections which may be derived from the fact that our chief and most efficient means of defence, lie in such a weapon.
After many weeks of inactivity upon our part, we have lately taken the initiative against the foe, whose present mode of war, so far as this place is concerned, would seem to give preference to the chastened security of laagers already beyond the three-mile limit from the town. Upon two occasions during the last week we have celebrated dawn with many salvoes of artillery, securing sufficient noise and effect from our shell fire display, to excite the town to no little enthusiasm. Moreover, up to the present, reaction has not set in, and we are even more cheerful to-day than we were at the beginning of the siege. Dingdaan's Day, the earlier of the two events, was distinguished by the Boers, as by ourselves, with a bombardment, which opened with a hundred-pound shell from "Big Ben," landing in the Headquarters Office at half-past two in the morning. Fortunately no one sustained any injury from this untimely marauder of our rest, the corner of the building alone being shattered, and the town itself sprinkled with fragments of masonry and shell. A few hours later the enemy again started firing, while our guns upon the east front proceeded to give a good account of themselves. About seven o'clock firing for the day ceased from the Boer lines, since they devoted themselves to psalm singing and prayer gathering in their laagers in commemoration of their day of independence; but we, upon our part, threw four rounds at noon into their camp, and then we, too, enjoyed the comparative peace of the siege. For the next few days our guns remained quiet, and "Big Ben" kept its nose pointed upon the furthest limits of the Stadt or Cannon Kopje, until the impression gained ground that the Boers had shifted the gun round to a position upon which they were very busily engaged on the western side of the Stadt. There were those even who were willing to lay odds that, when the gun fired again, it would be found to have taken up a new site. And so universal was this idea that it was not altogether discarded by members of the Staff. With a view to disproving this illusion Colonel Baden-Powell arranged that all our available artillery, under Major Panzera, should effect a reconnaissance of the Boer lines upon the east of the town, from which it could easily be learnt whether the fire of the big gun still dominated that front.
There had been some little talk of a movement against the five-pound gun, which the enemy had located at Game Tree, and upon Sunday night I camped with Captain Vernon, from whose fort upon the western outposts, the sortie would have taken place. However, nothing happened, and although a few shells fell about us at daybreak, there was nought to interest one beyond the usual routine of daily life upon the western outposts. Upon returning to town I learnt that the following morning might reveal something more important than a mere artillery exchange. Towards nightfall, to those who knew about the contemplated move, Mafeking appeared to present much unusual animation. Artillery officers, whose duty detained them at points distant from the town, gathered at Headquarters to receive Major Panzera's final instructions before setting out for their emplacements, as at the same time small detachments of men moved to reinforce the entrenchments along the eastern front. For the most part the town went to its rest in ignorance of the surprise which was being laid for the enemy at daybreak upon the following morning, and by nine o'clock the nocturnal aspect of the town was eminently peaceful. The transformation from the harsh and biting sunlight of the day to the soothing and eerie light of night impressed the hour with grandeur and solemnity, which was in striking contrast to the labour upon which we were engaged. From the town, those guns which were not already in position moved to their stations—one, the Hotchkiss, being despatched to an emplacement which had only been completed the preceding night. It was a pleasant scramble to this position across the veldt, and so near to the enemy's lines that we could hear the murmur of their voices as they called to one another in the trenches and discerned their gloomy figures silhouetted against the skyline. The Hotchkiss, which was our extreme piece upon the north-east of the town, was to direct its fire upon the enemy at the waterworks and the opposing corner of their advanced trenches. Its precise utility was uncertain, since it was not possible to see the object at which its fire would be directed, but, as the gun party moved to the emplacement, the officer in charge arranged with the nearest entrenchment in the rear to signal the accuracy of his range. Then we set out to visit the outposts and the different emplacements. Time and distance passed rapidly in the starlight expanse of the night, and few things could have been more impressive than the calm which had come upon the town. From the veldt, as we cut directly across from the Hotchkiss to the nearest post, it seemed as though we were passing some walled-in city of the ancient days. At short distances the outlines of the forts showed out against the buildings, and it became almost difficult to suppress the cry to the sentry, "Watchman, what of the night?" As we made our rounds it was interesting to note how some points had received heavier fire than at others. The ground round the Dutch Church was ploughed and furrowed by shell, and at Ellis's Corner and across the front of the location to Cannon Kopje there were numerous traces of the enemy's bombardment. Presently the rounds were concluded, and Major Panzera went to snatch a few hours' rest before he opened fire in the morning. As upon Dingdaan's morning, so this time did I attach myself to the emplacement under the direct control of Major Panzera, at the Dutch Church, and around this, as he arrived there, the hour of midnight chiming from the church towers, there were the sleeping figures of the gunners. For the time we slept together, and when Major Panzera aroused us in the morning the rawness of the morning air foretold the earliness of the hour.
The mists of night were still rising from the veldt about the Boer lines, and as we looked through our field-glasses, figures here and there, were busily engaged in gathering brushwood for the matutinal fire. Then, as it was yet early, and they were about to prepare their coffee, we boiled up ours, and, passing round the billy, filled our pannikins to the health of the enemy. It was but a grim jest, and one perhaps which shows the indifference of the men to the accidents of fate, but as we drank, he who was number one said, raising his tin to the air, "We will drink with you in hell." But the hour of jesting was soon over and the gun party prepared for their morning's work by running up the gun into the embrasure. Number one laid the gun, and number two stood with his lanyard in his hand ready to connect the friction tube. Number three hung upon the trail piece, and he, with the sponge and ramrod, was prepared for immediate service. Within a few feet of them were two who were actively adjusting the time fuses. At their side there was a pile of common shell and shrapnel, and with this, the local colour of the picture is completed. Of a sudden Panzera gave the order to the man who fed the gun—"Common shell, percussion fuse, prepare to load," and as it passed from the hands of the man to the muzzle of the gun, one found oneself muttering a prayer for the souls of the Boers who were so speedily to be sent into perdition. "Load," said Panzera rapidly, and the gun was loaded. Then, as I focussed my glasses upon the scene, the Major took one last squint down the sights of the gun. It was well and truly laid, and as he straightened himself to the precision of the parade ground the end came rapidly. "Prepare to fire," said he, and number two stepped forward, dropping the friction tube into the vent. "Fire," said Panzera, and one raised the glasses to fix them upon a party of Boers whom we could see drinking their coffee, as they sat upon the parapet of the trench. There was a roar, a cloud of smoke, and a red fierce tongue of flame leapt from the muzzle of the gun. Dust and smoke and sand enveloped the place where those Boers had been sitting, and I found myself wondering and endeavouring to believe that the breach in the parapet foreboded no great harm to anybody. The battle, if battle it were to be, had been started by a well-directed shell. Quickly the gun was trained and loaded again, and I felt the excitement entering into my soul. The feelings of humanity left me, and I began to hope that we should kill them every time. Again our gun fired, falling short, but giving the signal to the others along the front to join in the comparative splendour of the cannonade. Away down in the river-bed our guns boomed; beyond it and between that emplacement and Cannon Kopje there were the jets of smoke from the Nordenfeldt like the spurts of steam from a geyser. Above us there was the Hotchkiss and the merry rattle of the Maxim. So far as noise, and numbers of the pieces engaged, went the press of battle was about us. All down our front there broke the whistling rush of Lee-Metford rifles, as the eastern line of the defence dropped into action. For the moment the Boers were surprised at the manner and method of our onslaught, and beyond a few desultory rifle shots our guns fired some few rounds before any shells came back in answer. As Major Panzera had opened the fight so they threw their first shells upon his emplacement, and a well-directed flight of one-pound steel-topped base fuse Maxim broke in a cloud of dust about us, flinging their sharp-edged fragments in all directions. Then we fired again, raking the parapet of the Boers' trench, and wondering whether the big gun would reply to us, or whether those who had speculated upon its removal would win. The music of the fight grew louder and louder, the quick-firing guns of the enemy paying their tribute. From where we were we could see the gun in the river-bed emplacement doing remarkable execution. The smoke of our own hung heavy upon us, mingling with the dust from the Maxim shell, as the enemy continued to pepper our emplacement. We were beginning to find it difficult to see, while the roar of the guns made it almost impossible to catch the officer's orders. Suddenly, as our gun again broke forth, the bell clanged in the distance six times. It was the signal that the big gun had fired, the six strokes indicating that it was pointed upon us. We heard it and crouched in the dust, and as we crouched we wondered. There was a screaming tumult in the air, a deafening explosion at our feet shook the ground; earth and dust, stones and bits of grass fell all about us, and the roofs of buildings upon either side of us rattled with the fragments of the shell as it burst within a circle of twenty-five yards from the gun. It was a moment rather fine than frightful, with just sufficient danger in it to make it interesting, but, if anything, somewhat quickly over. We wiped the dust from our faces, shook the grass from our shirts, and laid again: once more fired, and chuckled to see, through rifts in the battle smoke, that it had landed in the very centre of the trench. Again the bell clanged sonorously, and a building not fifteen yards from us was blown to pieces. They were getting nearer, and making magnificent shooting, when the Nordenfeldt turned its fire upon "Big Ben" itself. From where we were we could see the thin columns of smoke rising, as the bullets burst before and behind the emplacement. If anything were calculated to check its fire it was the irritating and penetrating possibility of the armour-piercing Nordenfeldt. With the introduction of "Big Ben" into the morning's festivities, the Boers opened from their trenches, with their Mauser and Martini rifles. In the intervals between the shells from "Big Ben," the Maxim, and quick-firing nine-pounders, the enemy swept our emplacements with their rifle fire. They came through the embrasure with quite fatal accuracy, dropping at our feet and raising dust all around us, but the tale of the one is the tale of the many, and the same scene was occurring throughout the entire eastern front. For a moment it became impossible to serve the gun, and we desisted with apologies to the enemy, but anon rifle fire was deflected, and we again trained the gun upon those very advanced trenches of the enemy; but, as we fired, the bell rang, and for the third time their shell, passing ours in its flight, tore up the ground in front of us. And then the Nordenfeldt spoke again, shooting into the very smoke of the gun as though they were anxious to drop projectiles into the breach itself. And to the north of us the Hotchkiss spitted, as though resenting the intrusion of this big bully. But there unfortunately it ended, and no more big shells came our way, and we contented ourselves with a parting sally.
Then the gun was sponged and laid to rest in the trench, and the spare shell put back into the box as the engagement closed. Then Panzera called his men together and thanked them, expressing his admiration for their courage and their coolness. Then we cheered him, and returning thanks for thanks, we went to breakfast, but in the distance we could see the Red Cross upon the white background, floating in tragic isolation, above a waggon, which was stopping ever and anon at places where we knew our shells had broken. That was in the Boer lines, but in our own the bugle sounded us to breakfast.